White House aide Kirst­jen Nielsen picked to lead DHS

Trump’s nom­i­na­tion of se­cu­rity veteran ex­pected to en­joy broad sup­port


Pres­i­dent Trump an­nounced Wednesday that he in­tends to nom­i­nate Kirst­jen Nielsen, a cy­ber­se­cu­rity ex­pert and deputy White House chief of staff, to be sec­re­tary of home­land se­cu­rity, a job left va­cant when John F. Kelly de­parted to be­come White House chief of staff in July.

The White House, in a state­ment, de­scribed Nielsen as hav­ing “ex­ten­sive pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence in the ar­eas of home­land se­cu­rity pol­icy and strat­egy, cy­ber­se­cu­rity, crit­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture, and emer­gency man­age­ment.”

Nielsen is a long­time Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cial who served as Kelly’s chief of staff when he was DHS sec­re­tary and ac­com­pa­nied him to the White House as his deputy. She also worked at the DHS dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion and founded a con­sult­ing firm fo­cused on risk and se­cu­rity man­age­ment.

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 be a “sherpa” to him as he went through the con­fir­ma­tion process 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 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.

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 in­formed states they had been tar­geted by Rus­sian hack­ers dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion cam­paign, 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 gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to sev­eral re­cent hur­ri­canes, the Se­cret Ser­vice, which pro­tects the pres­i­dent and his fam­ily, and the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which han­dles air­port and other trans­porta­tion-re­lated se­cu­rity, are also a part of the DHS.

Nielsen will prob­a­bly have no short­age of con­tro­ver­sies to nav­i­gate. Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials will play a key role in im­ple­ment­ing Trump’s new en­try 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 DACA — the De­ferred Ac­tion for Child­hood Ar­rivals pro­gram — which al­lowed un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants who were brought to the United States as chil­dren to avoid de­por­ta­tion.

The DHS, along with the Jus­tice Depart­ment, has been en­er­getic in im­ple­ment­ing Trump’s promised crack­down on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion — em­ploy­ing ag­gres­sive, con­tro­ver­sial tac­tics such as ar­rest­ing peo­ple sus­pected of be­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally while they were in court seek­ing re­dress on mat­ters in­clud­ing do­mes­tic vi­o­lence com­plaints. Im­mi­gra­tion agents have made 43 per­cent more ar­rests since Trump took of­fice than in the same pe­riod last year, but fewer de­por­ta­tions have taken place than in the com­pa­ra­ble pe­riod last year.

Nielsen is not ex­pected to face a dif­fi­cult con­fir­ma­tion process in the Se­nate. She is widely viewed as a com­pe­tent, ex­pe­ri­enced and non­par­ti­san se­cu­rity pro­fes­sional.

Given that po­lar­iz­ing and ide­o­log­i­cal fig­ures such as for­mer Mil­wau­kee County sher­iff David A. Clarke Jr. and Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach were 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 the 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 qual­ify on both counts.

“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 gover­nor Tom Ridge (R), the first 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 na­tion’s se­cu­rity and re­silience.

“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.”

“[The] nom­i­na­tion is a strong sig­nal of com­pe­tence and ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing val­ued . . . over ide­o­logues.” Stewart Verdery, a DHS of­fi­cial un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush


White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and deputy Kirst­jen Nielsen, a cy­ber­se­cu­rity spe­cial­ist. Nielsen is re­spected for her ex­pe­ri­ence at the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity. She has been praised as hav­ing the skill set needed for the agency’s...

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