President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he intended to name Kirstjen Nielsen, a top White House aide, to lead the Department of Homeland Security, elevating a former homeland security official in the George W. Bush administration who has lately worked to impose order in Trump’s chaotic West Wing.
Trump announced his choice in a statement that noted Nielsen’s “extensive professional experience in the areas of homeland security policy and strategy, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure and emergency management.” She is the first nominee for the homeland security post who had served in the department, according to the statement.
If confirmed, Nielsen would replace John F. Kelly, who was homeland security secretary until he left in July to serve as the White House chief of staff and bring discipline and direction to a West Wing plagued by disorganization and infighting. Kelly had drafted Nielsen to be his chief of staff at the Homeland Security department, and when the president plucked him for the White House, he brought her as his No. 2.
Kelly pushed hard for her selection, making a personal appeal to Trump during a monthslong search process. Among the other candidates considered, according to people familiar with the process, was Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Former colleagues said Wednesday that Nielsen was well qualified.
“She’s a total homeland security expert — absolutely has no learning curve,” said Michael Allen, who worked with Nielsen during the Bush administration. “She’s an experienced manager, she’s an implementer, she knows how to get under the hood and figure out what needs to be connected to what.”
Added Frances Townsend, her boss at the White House during the Bush administration: “She is tough as nails, competent and has rightly earned the president’s respect.”
Some Democrats, however, expressed reservations about Nielsen’s closeness to the president and his chief of staff.
“It is extremely important that the DHS secretary stay above the partisan fray,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, “and not allow the position be a political pawn of the White House.”