As the top crisis manager at the massive Department of Homeland Security, Christian Marrone has taken plenty of hairy calls with a major problem unfolding on the other end of the line.

Because he serves as chief of staff to Secretary Jeh Johnson and helps oversee a federal agency tasked with protecting the country, Marrone got bad news a lot — and had to spring into action as soon he hung up.

One balmy Friday night in September 2014, Marrone was pulling weeds in his front yard when Secret Service Director Julia Pierson called. She alerted Marrone that a troubled vet with a knife had hopped over the White House fence and that — for the first time in history — the intruder had made it deep inside the executive mansion.

AD

[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/white-house-fence-jumper-made-it-far-deeper-into-building-than-previously-known/2014/09/29/02efd53e-47ea-11e4-a046-120a8a855cca_story.html"]White House fence-jumper made it far deeper into building than previously known[/interstitial_link]

AD

In May 2014, Marrone was with Johnson returning from Tampa when a call came that a surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border had pushed U.S. facilities past the breaking point, creating an immigration crisis like none before.

“Probably the worst day,” Marrone says, was when the department’s inspector general privately briefed him and Johnson this May on some devastating findings of his undercover agents. Transportation Security Agency screeners at U.S. airports failed to find guns and explosives more than nine times out of 10 — the TSA’s central purpose when it was created in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

AD

[interstitial_link url="https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/homeland-security-sends-undercover-agents-to-slip-through-airport-security/2015/06/02/3bde0c44-091e-11e5-9e39-0db921c47b93_story.html"]TSA acting head reassigned following airport security breaches[/interstitial_link]

AD

Now, after two jam-packed years at the agency, Marrone, 40, is leaving Homeland Security and his good friend Johnson for a private-sector job at CSRA, a product of the merger of SRS and CSCom and now one of the largest information technology government contractors. There, Marrone expects he’ll use the same skills to solve problems, but with days that are “hopefully not as intense.”

In an interview in his drab, moss-green carpeted office in the rambling Homeland Security headquarters complex in Northwest Washington, Marrone reviewed the highs and lows of his time at the $55 billion agency that has 240,000 employees. The department handles such disparate missions as protecting the borders, patrolling the seas, investigating drug cartels and cybertheft, providing safe airline travel, and guarding the president.

AD

“My wife has been phenomenal in letting me do this job,” Marrone said, explaining that he tries hard to get to work by 5 a.m. so he can get home for dinner at 6:30 p.m. with his wife and three daughters. Still, he concedes, “I’ve missed more dinners than you can count.”

AD

Every day, even Christmas, involves some work for the department. Marrone says his favorite idea of a getaway is taking his family in the summer to visit his parents’ beach house on the Jersey Shore. But more often than not, he says, he is that annoying guy on the beach towel glued to his phone.

“Let’s be honest,” he says. “Even when I’m there, I’m not really there.”

Marrone, a native of working-class South Philadelphia and a proud Republican, likes to say that he took an “unusual path” to this perch in a cabinet department in the Obama administration. Indeed, his start in politics was a cauldron of controversy.

AD

After playing football for Coach Joe Paterno and graduating from Penn State, he took a job in the Philadelphia office of state Sen. Vince Fumo. At Fumo’s direction, the new college grad and legislative aide proceeded to improperly spend most of his work time overseeing the renovation of Fumo’s mansion — all while on state taxpayer salary, according to testimony at a trial of Fumo a decade later. Fumo, a powerful state appropriator, had a corporation donate to a nonprofit that Fumo controlled and was illegally using the fund for his personal and political benefit, according to court records. Fumo also directed Marrone, who was going to attend law school at night at Temple University, to keep watch over a fellow classmate of Marrone’s — Fumo’s daughter, Nicole.

AD

Marrone and Nicole Fumo began a courtship, but they had a falling out with her father in 2002 and Marrone left his employ.

“I knew I wanted out of Vince Fumo politics,” he said, describing increasing unease about Fumo’s operation. “Plus, I had more conservative leanings generally.”

AD

The couple married in 2003, and Marrone became a prosecutor in neighboring Montgomery County, Pa., working for a Republican district attorney with higher ambitions. Marrone worked his way up in the party, eventually became friends with a GOP powerbroker, Bob Asher. Asher got Marrone a job as counsel to the Pennsylvania state reelection campaign for Bush-Cheney in 2004. He later secured a job as lawyer for the Bush-Cheney inaugural commission.

In 2005, Marrone was rewarded for his campaign work with a job in the Defense Department’s congressional liason’s office. There, he gained a baptism by fire when tasked with helping set up special military tribunals for Guantanamo detainees suspected of being enemy fighters. He also built a friendship with Johnson, who was then the Defense Department’s general counsel. The two worked together regularly, including on how to provide appropriate treatment and detention for whistleblower Chelsea Manning.

AD

“I feel like Forrest Gump sometimes,” he said. “I landed in a lot of interesting times.”

AD

Former Defense secretary Bob Gates mentioned Marrone by name in his memoir, describing him as a loyal team member and one of the “key members of the core front office staff.” Gates’s senior deputies called Marrone a person who had a knack for building practical alliances and making a big bureaucracy work.

But in 2008, Marrone’s long-ago work with Fumo resurfaced in federal court. Marrone agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, turning over emails that helped convict and send Fumo, his estranged father-in-law and first political boss, to prison on corruption charges. Marrone said that he felt it was his duty to testify truthfully and that he had been an unwitting pawn.

While working at 3M in late 2013, Marrone got a call with a telltale North Jersey area code and knew it was Johnson, who had just been confirmed as secretary of homeland security and had told friends that he wanted Marrone to be his chief of staff.

AD
AD

“I knew who it was and what he wanted,” Marrone laughs. “It was a pretty one-way conversation. He said I want you to do this and the White House will be in touch, and then he hung up.”

Marrone said he’s proud of Johnson’s efforts to restore bottom-of-the-basement worker morale in some parts of the department and their work together to improve the middle management that was lacking before they arrived. Amid all the crises, Marrone and Johnson also tried to prioritize consolidating central functions of seven major department headquarters organizations, to better coordinate basic functions such as hiring.

He praises Johnson’s willingness to take bold steps when trouble arises.

AD

“He’s very action oriented. Sometimes you have to hold him back,” Marrone says. “But that’s a lot better than having to push. I never had to push him.”

AD

When Johnson learned of the inspector general’s findings about TSA failures, Marrone says he remembers Johnson demanding a briefing from the acting administrator the same day.

“The two of us were — well, shocked would be an understatement,” Marrone recalls. “I remember saying, even if this half-wrong, it’s terrible.”

Johnson removed acting administrator Melvin Carraway days later and demanded that the deputy director put changes in place in a matter of days and weeks.

When the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the border flooded U.S. shelters and facilities, the agency brought in the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create overflow beds and emergency services.

When the pair learned about the jumper getting inside the White House, Marrone remembers Johnson wasn’t worried about pulling off painful scabs in his search for the root of the security failures. He named a special independent panel to diagnose the Secret Service’s problems, and it came back with a scalding report.

Marrone said he’ll miss working with Johnson, his fellow co-workers, and, “honestly, I’ll miss the tempo and dealing with the hard, ugly problems.”

“I like the challenge,” he says. “And we have a can’t-fail mission. The American people depend on us. “

AD