Cuccinelli Defends Fed Crackdown, As GAO Finds Him Ineligible for DHS Job

Of all the Trump administration officials involved in the controversial deployment of federal officers to Portland, Oregon, few have been more outspoken in defending the operation than Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department.

Some have questioned if Cuccinelli is even able to claim that role. The Government Accountability Office, Congress's independent investigative arm, concluding that both he and DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf were invalidly appointed to their positions and are, technically, ineligible to serve in their top jobs.

The GAO has referred its findings, which determined that an improper succession occurred within the DHS following former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's departure in April 2019, to the Homeland Security department awaiting further action.

However, it is unlikely that any action will be taken by the Trump administration to address the accountability office's concerns.

In an interview with Newsweek shortly before the GAO's findings coming to light, Cuccinelli continued to defend the DHS's federal deployment to Portland. He also defended federal officers' actions in nearby Bend on Wednesday, which saw officers pepper spray protesters intervening in two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency arrests.

In the Bend incident, Cuccinelli acknowledged that pepper spray was used. However, he said that the incident, which saw Border Patrol officers respond to a protest that saw hundreds of people surround two DHS buses for hours to prevent ICE from taking two detainees into custody, was a unique situation.

Noting that there were hundreds of demonstrators present at the incident, Cuccinelli said: "I've been the deputy secretary for most of the year and we've never had a situation like this."

"They interposed vehicles to block our vehicles and had, you know, people literally crawling under the bus," he said. "I would not characterize that as a normal protest by any means."

Cuccinelli also noted that local police "refused to help" federal officers, with the Bend Police Department tweeting out that while its officers were present at the demonstration, they would not be assisting ICE.

Eventually, federal officers responded to the incident and helped the ICE agents remove detainees from the two vehicles and take them into federal custody. They used pepper spray against protesters, who Cuccinelli said grabbed at federal officers and the two detainees in a bid to prevent their arrests.

"The pepper spray was deployed because it was effective and a far less than lethal way to establish control of the situation, and by that, I mean getting people off of the detainees and backing them at least sufficiently away from the officers to not be grabbing and pulling them," he said.

Immigration advocates have condemned the federal government's actions, however, while praising protesters' efforts to prevent the arrests.

In a statement provided to Newsweek, meanwhile, an ICE spokesperson said: "The law enforcement activity in Bend, Oregon is part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's mission to arrest criminal aliens presenting a danger to public safety and take them off the street. The two individuals arrested each had a history of criminal violent behavior."

The agency did not expand on what that history was or provide any other details on the two individuals, citing pending litigation as a reason for withholding the information.

"While ICE respects the right of people to voice their opinion peacefully, that does not include illegally interfering with federal law enforcement duties," they said of the protest, adding: "ICE will take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of its officers and detainees, and will vigorously pursue prosecution against anyone who puts them in harm's way."

Cuccinelli defended the actions of federal officers who were deployed to nearby Portland in recent weeks, asserting that they were simply fulfilling their duties and responding to "violent agitators" who he said were "essentially co-opting peaceful protesting."

Asked to respond to widespread concern over the tactics of federal officers deployed to Portland, which saw demonstrators forced into unmarked vehicles, as well as many protesters injured, including one demonstrator who was left seriously injured after being shot in the head with what appeared to be impact munitions, Cuccinelli said that he believed such incidents of officers going on the offense were the "exception and not the rule."

He also noted that the demonstrator who was shot in the head, Donavan La Bella, was shot by a member of the U.S. Marshals Service, an agency falling under the Justice Department, and said that while it was an "unfortunate injury," his "best guess is that it was not intentional."

Asked what his feelings are on the Black Lives Matter movement itself, which has seen widespread protests across the country and around the world in the wake of Floyd's killing, Cuccinelli said he agrees that racism "exists in America" and needs to be addressed.

While he said that he believed racism and racial injustice in America is a problem, he does not feel it is "systemic."

"I understand that it exists in America," he said. "I do not believe our justice system is systemically racist, but racism does invade the process and we have to be on guard for it."

Further, he said he was in favor of criminal justice reform, asserting that "we have to be evolutionary in how we view our legal system in responding to that."

While President Donald Trump has appeared at odds with the BLM movement in recent months, recently suggesting that the words "Black Lives Matter" themselves were a "symbol of hate" after plans emerged to see them painted outside one of his hotels, Cuccinelli said the president cares about prison reform, citing the First Step Act as an example of that.

The First Step Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation outlining measures to reform federal prisons and sentencing laws to reduce recidivism and decrease the federal inmate population, is "the most comprehensive criminal justice reform in decades," he said. It was signed into law by Trump in December 2018.

"Things change over time and we need to change with them and that's part of what, I think, the president was willing to do," he said.

Protesters across the country, however, have demanded change that surpasses criminal justice reform, however, with many calling on local and state governments to defund and dismantle policing, as well as the criminal justice system as we know it.

Neither Trump, nor Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee vying to unseat the president in the 2020 election, have backed the movement to defund police.

Biden has, however, strongly supported the implementation of "meaningful reforms" and has also said he supports calls to abolish privately owned and run prisons.

KEN Cuccinelli
Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, testifies during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing concerning the government response to the coronavirus, in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill March 11, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Drew Angerer/Getty
Cuccinelli Defends Fed Crackdown, As GAO Finds Him Ineligible for DHS Job | U.S.