Politics & Government

‘We can’t confirm him,’ Pat Roberts warns of potential Kobach nomination for DHS

One of the GOP senators from Kris Kobach’s home state said Tuesday that the Senate would not be able to confirm the Kansas Republican if President Donald Trump taps him for a cabinet post.

Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, has been mentioned as a potential candidate for an array of immigration-related positions since President Donald Trump pulled his nominee for the director of Immigration Customs Enforcement and announced the departure of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen.

But Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said he doesn’t believe the Republican-controlled Senate could confirm his fellow Kansan, who has gained national notoriety for championing stronger restrictions on immigration.

“Don’t go there. We can’t confirm him,” Roberts whispered to The Kansas City Star when asked about Kobach Tuesday on his way into a Senate vote.

“I never said that to you,” Roberts added, despite the fact that another reporter was present and The Star had not agreed to an off record conversation.

Kobach met with Trump in 2016 to discuss a strategic plan for the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees immigration enforcement, and previously said that he turned down two jobs in the Trump Administration to run for Kansas governor.

Kobach and his former campaign team did not immediately answer phone calls, but the Kansas Republican told The Washington Examiner that he has communicated with the White House about filling the DHS job. 

“If (Trump) wants to have me serve in this capacity, and thinks it would be the best thing for the country, I would certainly do so,” Kobach told The Examiner.

Roberts blamed Kobach’s difficult path to confirmation on Senate Democrats in a longer statement released by his office Tuesday afternoon.

“The make-up of the Senate is extremely difficult for any nominee to be confirmed and it is only going to get worse,” Roberts said. “This body has six Democrats currently running for President who wish to obstruct the President’s agenda at all costs. Kris and I have discussed this. I have supported Kris Kobach in the past and I have supported every one of Trump’s nominees but ultimately this will be the President’s decision.”

Republicans control 53 seats in the 100-member Senate, which makes it difficult to block any of Trump’s nominees unless multiple Republicans buck the president. The Senate has a 51-vote threshold to confirm executive branch nominees.

But Kobach, who has advised states and cities on legislation to curb illegal immigration, would be a controversial pick. A 2018 investigation by ProPublica and The Kansas City Star detailed the financial toll to some of the municipalities that hired Kobach as attorney to defend immigration ordinances.

Kobach previously served as vice chair of Trump’s commission on voter fraud, which was disbanded in the face of a string of lawsuits and bipartisan outcry about an extensive data request Kobach has sent to every state.

He won the GOP nomination for Kansas governor last year after a last-minute endorsement by Trump ahead of the primary, but went onto to lose the general election to Democrat Laura Kelly.

In the months since his electoral defeat, Kobach has championed efforts to construct a border wall through private funds and repeatedly appeared on cable news to defend the president’s immigration agenda.

During an appearance on the Fox Business Network last week, Kobach called for the creation of “processing towns” to temporarily hold people who have been caught crossing the border illegally.

“We process them right there, in that camp, where they have the three square meals, they’re living in a nice mobile home, and then as soon as they’re done … they’re on the next plane back home,” Kobach told host Lou Dobbs.

Former state Rep. John Whitmer, a Wichita Republican who is close with Kobach, said the appearances function as an audition for a job in the Trump administration.

“I think it’s obvious that’s what he’s trying to do,” said Whitmer, who now hosts a talk radio show.

Kobach’s long history of work on the issue has made him a favorite of hardline groups seeking to curb immigration. Numbers USA, a national group that seeks to reduce both legal and illegal immigration, released a statement Tuesday morning endorsing him as a potential nominee to head the Department of Homeland Security.

“He is committed to the President’s promise to ensure that immigration serves the interests of America and American workers. He also, importantly, has the support of the men and women who serve on America’s front line in the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Kris Kobach is, without question, the best choice to lead DHS, and we hope he will be President Trump’s nominee,” the statement said.

Kobach has also considered running for Roberts’ Senate seat in 2020 since the senator announced his plans to retire at the end of his current term.

If Trump taps Kobach for a cabinet post or to serve as an “immigration czar,” a position which has been floated, it would likely keep him from entering the race to replace Roberts. Some Republicans are wary of a Kobach run after his campaign for governor struggled to raise money or appeal to moderate voters in the Kansas City suburbs.

A former Trump adviser told The Star last week that Trump “knows that keeping the Senate is vital to passing his agenda next term or stopping the Dem agenda.” Making Kobach an adviser on immigration would help Trump keep the Senate in GOP hands and also help the president pursue his immigration agenda, the adviser said.

If a czar position were run out of the White House rather than DHS, it would not be subject to Senate confirmation.

“It’s a win win.”

Kobach visited the White House in February, but a White House official said at the time that the Kansas Republican was not under consideration for a cabinet post and that the president did not talk to Kobach about his political future during the visit.

The Wichita Eagle’s Jonathan Shorman contributed to this report.
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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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