President Trump said Wednesday he’ll nominate Kirstjen Nielsen, a longtime Bush administration official and now top aide to White House chief of staff John F. Kelly, to be the new head of Homeland Security.
The move would be a big leap for Ms. Nielsen, the principal deputy chief of staff, who has never run an operation the size of the massive Homeland Security apparatus, which includes 230,000 employees and spans everything from the Secret Service and disaster response to three agencies that handle immigration.
It would also mark a major shift at the department from Mr. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general who was Mr. Trump’s first Homeland Security secretary.
As former head of U.S. Southern Command, Mr. Kelly had extensive experience with the players and the issues in the immigration debate and made major strides during his six months in changing the department’s focus from the more relaxed approach of the Obama administration.
Ms. Nielsen’s chief government experience, meanwhile, came with President George W. Bush. She served on Mr. Bush’s homeland security council, and in the Transportation Security Administration, which is part of the department she would take over.
The White House said she’s the first nominee in the 14-year history of the department to have worked at Homeland Security before.
“Ms. Nielsen has extensive professional experience in the areas of homeland security policy and strategy, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure, and emergency management,” the White House said in a statement.
Sen. Ron Johnson, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said he would try to speed consideration of her nomination through.
“Ms. Nielsen’s long history of service with the department, her cybersecurity experience and her tenure serving with General John Kelly would serve her well as the next secretary of the Department of Homeland Security,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
While at the Bush White House, Ms. Nielsen was in charge of emergency preparedness, and came in for criticism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
She was also a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber & Homeland Security.
Both cybersecurity and emergency management are key parts of Homeland Security. But the department is perhaps best known for overseeing three immigration agencies, which are now at the center of the ongoing debate over immigration policy and Mr. Trump’s push for stricter enforcement.
“Where is her immigration experience?” said Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA, which wants to see stricter immigration limits.
Ms. Jenks said it would be a curious choice for a president who has made expansive promises on stepping up immigration enforcement, including a new 70-point plan this weekend calling for building a border wall, hiring more personnel and closing loopholes that have encouraged illegal immigrants to come and stay in the U.S.
“Who’s going to drive those?” Ms. Jenks said.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he was happy Mr. Trump finally delivered a nominee, nearly two and a half months after Mr. Kelly left the post to become White House chief of staff.
Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke has been acting as secretary.
Mr. Thompson said he wants to hear more about Ms. Nielsen’s experience, particularly during Hurricane Katrina.
He said with the federal government dealing with hurricane recovery and repairs in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the lessons from the Bush years could be important.
And Mr. Thompson said he wants a demonstration of Ms. Nielsen’s independence.
“It is extremely important that the DHS secretary stay above the partisan fray and not allow the position be a political pawn of the White House,” the congressman said.
Among others under consideration for the DHS post were Energy Secretary Rick Perry and acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke.