Seeking ‘Tougher’ Direction for ICE, Trump Withdraws His Nominee

WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Friday that he withdrew his nominee to run Immigration and Customs Enforcement because he wanted the agency to go in a “tougher” direction, a surprise decision before the president’s trip to the southwestern border.

Ronald D. Vitiello, who was nominated last summer by Mr. Trump to run ICE, the agency that arrests, detains and deports people who are in the United States illegally, has been serving as the agency’s acting director since last June. He had planned to accompany the president on his trip to California, but was left behind.

“Ron’s a good man, but we’re going in a tougher direction,” Mr. Trump said to reporters as he left the White House en route to Calexico, Calif.

Mr. Vitiello’s nomination had been awaiting approval by a second Senate committee and confirmation by the full chamber. In an email to ICE employees on Friday afternoon, he signaled that he planned to remain at the immigration agency. No replacement has yet been named.

“While I will not become the permanent director of ICE, I look forward to working alongside you in serving the American public with integrity, courage and excellence,” Mr. Vitiello said in the email, which was read to The New York Times by an ICE employee on the condition of anonymity.

One person familiar with the president’s thinking said that Mr. Trump believed that Mr. Vitiello did not favor closing the border, as the president had proposed before backing off that threat this week.

Another person said that Stephen Miller, the president’s chief policy adviser and a supporter of curtailing legal and illegal immigration, did not support Mr. Vitiello’s nomination. The two people familiar with the president’s thinking both spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the internal White House decisions.

The president’s abrupt decision came at a time when his administration considers the United States border with Mexico to be in crisis because of the flow of people trying to get into the country, making it a priority to have a confirmed appointee leading the agency to carry out the administration’s policies. But some senators, including Republicans, had concerns that Mr. Vitiello was not the right person for this job.

Mr. Trump, who has continued to push for stronger deportation rules, had also expressed concern about whether a career civil servant, like Mr. Vitiello, would be up to the task. ICE has been led by acting directors since January 2017.

Mr. Vitiello had recently been more outspoken about overflowing immigration facilities and strapped resources at the border. But that did little to assuage the National ICE Council, a union representing agency employees, which in February told the Senate it opposed Mr. Vitiello’s nomination over what was described as his controversial posts on social media and his treatment of some ICE agents.

The request to withdraw Mr. Vitiello’s nomination surprised officials on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Even some Department of Homeland Security officials questioned whether it was sent in error.