U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul fell short last December of being named secretary of the Homeland Security Department by President-elect Donald Trump. But with the position vacant since late July, when John Kelly took over as White House chief of staff, the seven-term Austin Republican is now high on the list for homeland security chief.
McCaul, 55, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, asked Thursday by the American-Statesman about his interest in the post, said, “I can’t respond to anything right now.”
But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, told the Statesman, “I think he’s talking to the White House,” when asked Wednesday about McCaul being considered for homeland security secretary. Cornyn said that when he was Texas attorney general he had hired McCaul, a former prosecutor. “He’s a good man,” the senator said. “We go way back. I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Even with such an endorsement from Cornyn, the No. 2 Senate Republican, McCaul still faces formidable critics: the anti-illegal-immigration activists who helped doom his potential nomination last time. Breitbart, the conservative website, has resumed calling him “no Wall McCaul” — and the Trump base is upset about the president’s Wednesday night deal-making with Democrats over so-called Dreamers, raising the stakes for whoever gets picked for the Homeland Security Department post.
Asked about the reported deal on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that would find a legal solution for children who were brought to the U.S. illegally in return for border security enhancements, but no border wall funding, McCaul said, “We are still in the very early stages of discussions.” He said that lawmakers, who are spending time in their districts next week, will be having “listening sessions” with constituents.
McCaul has proposed border security legislation that would combine physical barriers with technology such as drones and more personnel.
“McCaul didn’t get it the first time because the thought was he wasn’t as strong on immigration as some in Trump World,” said James Norton, a consultant on homeland security issues and a former homeland security assistant secretary under President George W. Bush.
But he credits McCaul for having used his chairmanship to advance a cause he thinks needs attention — cybersecurity. McCaul is pushing legislation that would reorganize the Homeland Security Department around cybersecurity to better coordinate and respond to cyberattacks.
Rob Walker, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Homeland Security Program, said the think tank does not endorse candidates, but he said of McCaul, “He would be qualified for the job.” The White House personnel office has been tight-lipped, he said, adding, “We have not heard any other potential nominees.”
Norton said others are being considered for the job, including Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke, who is currently the acting secretary, and Emilio Gonzalez, a former homeland security official who is now director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department.
Challenges for the new homeland security chief include, “First and foremost, operational control of the southern border,” Walker said, followed by establishing the agency’s role in cybersecurity and reinforcing attention on global aviation security.
McCaul made a high-profile move this week that might have endeared him to the president. In uncharacteristically harsh language, McCaul sharply criticized votes by four Texas congressmen as “unconscionable” for opposing a $15.3 billion package to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.
On MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” McCaul said, “I judge myself and my conscience, and when I have people dying and hurting in my home state, it was my duty and my moral obligation to help them, and I felt that that vote was a vote of conscience to help people in my state and also now in Florida.”
“I think that’s what Americans do, and I think it’s unconscionable to vote against something like that,” said McCaul. Trump had reached a deal with Democrats to secure funding for hurricane relief as well as a three-month extension of the debt limit — angering GOP fiscal conservatives who wanted offsetting cuts. Ninety Republicans voted against the package earlier approved by the Senate, including U.S. Reps. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, Sam Johnson, R-Plano, and Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon.
If McCaul gets the nod from Trump, that would open his congressional seat for a special election. “A special election for McCaul’s district could be interesting,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. The 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the district by about 20 points; Donald Trump only won it by 9 points.
“The Republicans would be favored to hold it, but Democrats have been generally running ahead of the 2016 presidential results in House and state legislative special elections across the country this year,” Kondik said.