WASHINGTON – President Trump announced Wednesday he intends to nominate Kirstjen Nielsen, a cybersecurity expert and deputy White House chief of staff, to be Homeland Security secretary, a job left vacant when John Kelly left the department to become White House chief of staff in July.
The White House said in a statement that Nielsen had “extensive professional experience in the areas of homeland security policy and strategy, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure, and emergency management.”
Nielsen is a longtime Homeland Security Department official who served as Kelly’s chief of staff when he was DHS secretary and accompanied him to the White House as his deputy.
Other contenders for the Cabinet post included Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, and Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Nielsen had one crucial advantage – the absolute trust and support of Kelly, to whom she grew close after volunteering to help “sherpa” him through the confirmation process earlier this year.
At the White House, as Kelly’s enforcer, Nielsen quickly emerged as a controversial presence. Her detractors viewed her no-nonsense style as brusque, and complained that she could be unresponsive as she worked with Kelly to streamline West Wing operations and instill discipline in a White House often lacking structure. But her allies and supporters said she was simply helping to professionalize the West Wing – the sort of necessary but thankless task that often leaves some staff members griping.
The news of Nielsen’s expected nomination was first reported by Politico.
Nielsen will inherit a massive and important portfolio. The Department of Homeland Security is considered a critical agency on matters of counterterrorism and national security: It is the agency, for example, that told states they had been targeted by Russian hackers during the 2016 election, and it would be responsible for monitoring and preventing such incidents in the future.
But it also bears primary responsibility for immigration enforcement and border protection – top priorities in the Trump administration. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been coordinating the federal response to several recent hurricanes, and the Secret Service, which protects the president and his family, are also a part of DHS.
Nielsen is likely to have to navigate no shortage of controversies. Homeland Security officials will play a key role in implementing Trump’s new travel ban, which is scheduled to fully take effect Oct. 18, and agency officials are also at the center of the president’s decision to wind down the DACA program, which allowed undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children to avoid deportation.
DHS, along with the Justice Department, has been aggressive in implemeting Trump’s promised crack down on illegal immigration – employing aggressive, controversial tactics such as using courthouses to arrest those suspects of being in the country illegally. Immigration agents have made 43 percent more arrests since Trump took office versus the same time period last year, but officials are on pace to deport fewer people than they did in fiscal 2017.
Nielsen is not expected to face a difficult confirmation in the Senate. She is widely viewed as a competent, experienced, and nonpartisan security professional.
Given that polarizing, ideological figures like Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach have been previously rumored to be in the running for the DHS job, mostly for their hard line views on immigration, the Nielsen choice would be more evidence of Kelly’s ability to consolidate control and move the administration in a more conventional, mainstream direction.
Some of the president’s senior advisers, including Stephen Miller, were said to favor an immigration hard-liner who would excite Trump’s base.
But the Nielsen pick would preserve DHS’s reputation as an agency whose core mission is counterterrorism and national security.
Democrats and critics of the president said they were looking for a nominee with counterterrorism experience and a familiarity with DHS operations, and Nielsen would bring both to the job.
“Nielsen’s nomination is a strong signal of competence and experience being valued by the White House over ideologues and outsiders,” said Stewart Verdery, a Republican lobbyist who worked in the department during the George W. Bush administration. “The homeland mission requires an unusual diverse set of skills, and she has expertise in almost all of them.”
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, R, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, said in a statement that Nielsen was a “homeland security veteran” who was “extremely well versed in the all-hazard threats challenging the security and resilience of our homeland.”
“Kirstjen can hit the ground running and there won’t be a learning curve,” Ridge said. Most importantly, in this hyper-political environment, Kirstjen is not a self-promoter. She is a patriot and takes a mission-focused approach to her work.”