Trump’s Homeland Security Chief Will Be Confirmed, Not Controlled

Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly doesn’t share all of Trump's antipathy for Mexico, migrants, or Muslims — nor his amity toward Moscow.


Six months ago, retired Gen. John Kelly bluntly warned the military brass weighing in on the presidential election to avoid the “cesspool of domestic politics.” But now, as President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to run the Department of Homeland Security, he’s smack in the middle of it.

While outspoken, the 46-year veteran and former commander of U.S. Southern Command is well-liked on Capitol Hill and is expected to be easily confirmed as congressional hearings for Trump’s top cabinet picks begin Tuesday.

But Kelly also brings to the $40-billion dollar agency a more nuanced view of border security, immigration and counterterrorism than his new boss, according to a pre-hearing questionnaire obtained by Foreign Policy.

That could portend friction with the Trump White House and brings into question whether the next president will be able to fully enact his ambitious — and controversial — agenda. Alternatively, Kelly has repeatedly talked tough about illegal immigration, and could bring a military mindset to border security, signaling a more aggressive approach to immigration.

Senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee pressed Kelly for his views on a range of Trump policy proposals, including vows to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, bar migrants from the war-torn Middle East, register Muslims, and begin mass deportations, as well as his repeated denials of Russian cyber-meddling in the U.S. election.

Kelly said his highest priority would be to close the border to illegal migration and drugs, but that Trump’s oft-touted wall wasn’t a fix. “No physical structure will accomplish the mission on its own,” he said. “Security of the border starts 1,500 miles south of the Rio Grande in the jungles of Latin America.”

Kelly has been working with the Trump transition team to prepare his confirmation hearing Tuesday afternoon. In his written responses, the retired general offered a few echoes of Trump’s stump speeches: Kelly railed against political correctness, and suggested cops and soldiers don’t get enough support. But he also repeatedly trumpeted his willingness to express his disagreement and “tell truth to power,” including to the next president. Here are his answers on a few hot-button issues.

The Wall

Trump has vowed to begin work on a border wall on the first day of his administration, and make Mexico pay for it. Kelly told Congress that he and Trump have briefly discussed the wall, but not who might pay for it. (Republicans in Congress have begun seeking taxpayer funding for the $20 billion project, while Mexico City has stated unequivocally it won’t fund the wall.)

Kelly stressed the need to better secure the 2,000-odd mile border, but suggested border patrol personnel and surveillance technology would instead be supplemented as a “force multiplier” so that DHS can prioritize drug interdiction.

“My highest priority would be to close the border to the illegal movement of people and things,” Kelly said. “We cannot however just play defense.”  

Mass Deportation Force

Kelly also said he’d had no discussions with Trump nor made any commitment to mass deportations or a deportation force, despite being slated to implement those policies. Trump has threatened to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, at one point quipping that a deportation force could nab former rival, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

“I have given no thought to the topic of a deportation force,” Kelly said. “As I understand it, we have — generally speaking — appropriate laws and regulations in place.”

Kelly also sidestepped the question of whether he would have different deportation policies for immigrants with criminal records, those granted reprieve under Obama’s executive orders, or any undocumented migrant.

Kelly’s long-held views on immigration and border security, reiterated in his responses, are unlikely to fully satisfy either Trump’s critics or opponents. He is empathetic to migrants fleeing for their lives, puts the blame on the U.S. demand for drugs that has devastated those countries, and emphasizes economic assistance to stem migrant flows. But he also promises to get tough on newly-arrived illegal migrants, and criticizes the Obama administration for what he views as lax enforcement of immigration law.

Kelly took aim at the White House’s deportation policy, despite the outgoing president’s reputation as “deporter in chief.” He said that immigration officials should fully apply existing laws, rather than utilizing so-called “prosecutorial discretion” to put finite resources into targeting immigrants with criminal records for deportation.

“We must be true to the laws on the books now, or change them,” he said.

Kelly did take a hard line on deporting new waves of immigrants, though. “The bottom line to the effort,” he wrote, is to return to their country “very large numbers of those who do penetrate the [border] defenses in violation of the laws as written by this institution no matter how they do it.”

Quoting leaders from Central America, he said, “‘If you do not start sending them back to their country of origin quickly and in large numbers they will never stop making the trek north.’ I believe they are right. I know they are right.”

Border Security and Foreign Assistance

Kelly’s final military posting was commander of U.S. Southern Command, responsible for most of Latin America. That, plus years of experience with counterinsurgency in Iraq, reinforced his belief that the most effective way to enhance U.S. border security is to get at the root causes of migration flows, including demand for narcotics and a lack of economic opportunities in many Central American countries.

In his responses, Kelly called for an aggressive offensive against drug production in Latin America — as well as tackling demand for drugs inside the United States — and also called for more economic assistance to Central American countries devastated by drug-related violence.

“If we help these countries attract foreign investment, and invest in them ourselves, and if we help them significantly improve the security conditions in their countries—conditions that eroded due in large measure to our drug demand—then there will be no reason for the people to head north illegally,” Kelly said.

Former Mexican President Felipe Calderón warned Trump on Twitter last week that beggar-thy-neighbor economic policies will only drive more Mexicans north. But Trump is no fan of foreign assistance, instead threatening to block migrant remittances that make up a significant portion of the region’s economies, spark trade wars, rewrite the U.S.-Mexico trade pact, and gut the State Department’s international aid programs.

Kelly told lawmakers that his requests at SOUTHCOM for more resources for the region and his warnings about potential threats often fell on deaf ears. According to Kelly, more than 100 fighters from Latin America had joined ISIS, but the warning signs weren’t taken seriously by the Obama administration. He said that cross-border criminal networks that move drugs and other illicit goods could be a conduit for terrorists to enter the United States.

Muslim Ban and ‘Extreme Vetting’

In the questionnaire, Kelly said he had not discussed with Trump nor committed to the notion of “extreme vetting” for potential refugees, or a national registry to track Muslims. He also said they had yet to talk about Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants or restrictions on immigration from the Middle East.

“My understanding is that the President-elect is not proposing new limits for Muslim travel and immigration to the United States,” Kelly said.

Kelly openly disagreed with Trump and his team’s perception of Muslims as security risks. Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, tapped for national security adviser, has issued strident warnings about the risks posed by “radical Islam,” given credence to conspiracies about a plot to impose Sharia law in the United States, and has called Islam a “malignant cancer.”

Kelly said he doesn’t believe all Muslims are looking to impose a political agenda. And he said Muslims report suspicious behavior or help fight extremism like any other Americans.

I think there are vulnerable individuals in every subcomponent of every population,” he said. “Terrorism is terrorism.”

Russian Cyberattacks

In his responses, Kelly affirmed his prior assessment that Russia is seeking to undercut U.S. influence in Latin America, citing an increased presence in propaganda, arms sales, and trade and security agreements.

Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said in congressional testimony in 2015, “we have seen a clear return to Cold War-tactics. As part of its global strategy, Russia is using power projection in an attempt to erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western hemisphere.”

In his answers for lawmakers, he carefully walked around Russia’s role in hacks that affected the U.S. election, a role that Trump continues to deny despite being briefed by top U.S. intelligence officials on their findings. He said he doesn’t currently have access to the same intelligence federal agencies used to conclude Moscow was behind cyber-meddling to undermine the U.S. presidential election and assist Trump’s candidacy.

Previously, Kelly has painted a picture of Russian mischief that squares with the consensus of U.S. spies and soldiers. And in stark contrast to his future boss, who has continued to belittle the intelligence community even after his latest briefing, Kelly was effusive in his praise for the broader intel community, including the FBI, where one of his children works.

“I trust them and what they do for the nation with my life,” he said. “We all do.”

Photo credit: Drew Angerer / Staff

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