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Trump taps conservative Ken Cuccinelli to head citizenship agency

The former Virginia attorney general, who will serve as acting director, could have a hard time winning Senate confirmation if nominated to the job on a permanent basis.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Former Virginia Attorney General Cuccinelli speaks at the Family Leadership Summit in Ames
Due in part to a rancorous relationship with Senate Republicans, Cuccinelli would be expected to have a difficult time winning confirmation to a permanent post in the Trump administration.Brian Frank / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Ken Cuccinelli, the head of a conservative political action committee that has caused headaches for Republican senators, has been tapped as acting director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, according to a Department of Homeland Security official.

DHS secretary Kevin McAleenan announced the move in an email to agency staff Monday, though the mechanics of whether it would include an official nomination were not immediately clear.

In any event, Cuccinelli, head of the Senate Conservatives Fund and a former Virginia attorney general, is expected to take over at least on an interim basis at USCIS, which is responsible for the administration of legal immigration, including dealing with asylum claims, issuing green cards and handling the naturalization process.

He'll do so at a time when there is a backlog of roughly 700,000 people seeking asylum in the U.S., tens of thousands more are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border each month and the Trump administration is seeking to rewrite the rules for legal immigration.

Because of the rancorous relationship between his Senate Conservatives Fund and some GOP lawmakers, Cuccinelli would be expected to have a difficult time winning confirmation to a permanent post in the Trump administration.

"He’s spent a fair amount of his career attacking Republicans in the Senate, so it strikes me as an odd position for him to put himself in to seek Senate confirmation,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told Politico last week. “It’s unlikely he’s going to be confirmed if he is nominated.”

Though Cuccinelli was a one-time critic of Trump broadly — he threw his credentials on the ground in protest at the GOP convention in 2016 — he is seen as more of a hard-liner than his predecessor, Francis Cissna, who clashed with White House officials over various Trump administration policy proposals.

Cuccinelli is well known in political circles for his social conservatism. During a failed bid for governor, he said homosexual acts are "against nature and are harmful to society."

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the appointment.