After suggesting the poem on the Statue of Liberty be rephrased to prioritize white European immigrants explicitly yesterday, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Ken Cuccinelli, grabbed headlines and had many asking “Who is this guy, exactly?”
On CNN last night, acting USCIS director Cuccinelli said the quiet part loud & explained that Statue of Liberty's “Give me your tired, your poor" sonnet was originally "referring back to people coming from Europe" — as though the distinction between whites & others is meaningful pic.twitter.com/Sw23Bhp353
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 14, 2019
It’s a fair question. In our perpetually whipsawing news cycle, it can be difficult to track precisely who’s who in the Trump administration these days.
Part of the difficulty stems from the administration’s many, many “acting” leaders – those who have been appointed, ostensibly on a temporary basis, to the most important executive posts in our bureaucracy. As Matt Ford put it in The New Republic back in June, “This isn’t how things are supposed to work” – senior leadership of federal agencies, under the constitution and federal statutes, are supposed to be “confirmed by the Senate before they can exercise the duties of [their] office.”
But for a loophole in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which “gives the president a certain amount of leeway to install other top federal officials … on a temporary basis,” Trump’s many “acting” appointees would never have received their posts. Either way, the FVRA has been abused throughout the administration, “a vehicle to place favored underlings in charge of major federal bureaucracies” while side-stepping congressional advice and consent.
Indeed, Ford notes, this is exactly how Mr. Cuccinelli found himself as the USCIS head – over the fierce objections of several Senate Republicans, many of whom have a rather conflictual history with the former Virginia attorney general. Without his “acting” designation on appointment, Cuccinelli almost certainly would have been rejected.
Cuccinelli’s Charmless Political Arc
Kenneth Thomas Cuccinelli II was best known before yesterday’s comments as a Virginia-based politician, having served in the Virginia Senate and as the state’s attorney general, from 2010 to 2014.
His tenure as attorney general prompted some of Mr. Cuccinelli’s first high-visibility forays into national politics, several of which feel a bit like foreshadowing with the benefit of hindsight. Shortly after assuming office, he began “investigating” University of Virginia climate scientist Michael E. Mann for fraud relating to research grants received from state and federal sources, despite providing no evidence under the statute the attorney general’s office relied on in the matter.
As the flagship science journal Nature noted at the time, Mr. Mann was “an internationally respected climate scientist” famed for co-authoring the “hockey stick” graph, “which shows estimated global temperatures over the last millennium to have been relatively constant until a drastic rise” in the last century – an iconic graphic in climate science and climate change-related debates. Nature condemned Cuccinelli’s request for documents and his “lack of any evidence of wrongdoing,” concluding the attorney general’s motivation was “an [ideological] inquisition that harasses and intimidates climate scientists.” (Mann relocated from Virginia to Pennsylvania State University in 2005.)
Two years after this episode, Virginia’s Supreme Court rejected Cuccinelli’s appeal and finally dismissed the case.
This first slog of headlines presaged what would follow – a string of scandals, public embarrassments and failed attempts to coercively impose draconian, intensely conservative policies on the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Cuccinnelli found the state seal of Virginia—showing the Roman goddess Virtus—unseemly, since it exposes her left breast. Failing to get an official revision, he then used his political action committee’s funds to redesign it for lapel pins, covering the breast with a Romanesque chestplate.
Of course, not content to fight the immorality of Roman deities alone, Cuccinelli’s social conservatism includes a vigorous opposition to LGBTQ rights. He’s called “homosexual” acts sinful behaviors which go “against nature and are harmful to society.” He led attempts to forbid Virginia’s public universities from including LGBTQ+ individuals within non-discrimination policies in 2010 and continues opposing LGBTQ rights, including same-sex marriage, today.
Toward the end of his term, Mr. Cuccinelli ran for and narrowly lost Virginia’s 2013 gubernatorial election, in which former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe won by just 2.5 percent.
Virginia’s near-miss in 2013—following a scandal-laden end to GOP control of the Commonwealth’s executive power—didn’t deter Cuccinelli from pursuing conservative policy priorities. In the intervening years, he’s served as a senior advisor to Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and as general counsel at the FreedomWorks Foundation, further burnishing his conservative bona fides.
The Hardest Line on Immigration
Mr. Cuccinelli’s work on immigration is just as consistent, from walking-back statements suggesting his support for the “Birther” conspiracy, as late as 2017 (the false claims that President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., and therefore was an “illegitimate” president) to his longstanding, vocal support for Trump’s “hard-liner” immigration policies.
While Trump’s xenophobia and racism are well-documented and linked to various policies implemented since early 2017, Cuccinelli’s views garner only sporadic attention. Yesterday’s comments on the Statue of Liberty—Cuccinelli “saying the quiet part out loud,” in terms of prioritizing whiteness, as it were—are just the start.
TThe Los Angeles Times explained in late May how, right as Cuccinelli was ascending to his current role, the “right-wing firebrand” had
no immigration experience and [takes] responsibility for a politically explosive issue that crosses multiple federal departments and is probably key to the president’s 2020 reelection chances.
He is a controversial figure [even] among Republicans … [after leading] an intraparty revolt during the 2016 presidential race when he tried to strip Trump of delegates at the party’s national convention.
It seems the two buried the hatchet during the intervening years, united by antipathy toward undocumented and legal immigrants alike. The L.A. Times also mentioned Mr. Cuccinelli’s legislative career in Virginia, where he “sponsored bills to force employees to speak English in the workplace and tried to repeal birthright citizenship,” positions well to the right of even most Southern Republicans over a decade ago.
These policies come with egregious rhetoric which might be familiar to readers, too. Before the recent white supremacist massacres in Gilroy, Calif., and El Paso, the Washington Post underlined Cuccinelli’s venomous statements against migrants. Like the president and the white supremacists who are emboldened by him, Cuccinelli has “warned against ‘an invasion’ by illegal immigrants” repeatedly.
The Post’s Marc Fisher neatly summarized Cuccinelli’s appeal as “surrogate” for the president:
Between his strong rhetoric as a TV surrogate for Trump and his bedrock support among social conservatives, Cuccinelli presented the president with a combination he relishes: someone who seems loyal, is popular with his base, and is good at the politics of disruption and provocation.
Quoting another execrable comment, Fisher recalls Cuccinelli’s appearance
on a radio talk show in 2012, he said that a D.C. law that prevented animal control workers from killing rats “is worse than our immigration policy. You can’t break up rat families.”
Today’s news cycle offers plenty of noisy demands on readers — crashing stock markets, bond-yield inversions, ongoing protests throughout Hong Kong, the aftermath of Jeffrey Epstein’s death by suicide, the latest dispatches from the climate apocalypse. But make no mistake: Ken Cuccinelli has been a spectacularly dismal figure, bigoted and with a proclivity toward authoritarian demagoguery, for a lot longer than the past 24 hours. If past is prescient, Americans and the nation’s political media must expect much more of the same.