Two new names have emerged as possible candidates for Department of Homeland Security secretary under President-elect Donald Trump, including a retired Marine general who clashed with the Obama administration over women in combat and plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, people familiar with the selection process said Monday.
Marine Gen. John F. Kelly, who retired this year as chief of U.S. Southern Command, is under consideration for the critical homeland security post, the people said. Also under consideration is Frances Townsend, a top homeland security and counterterrorism official in the George W. Bush administration, they said.
Kelly, a widely respected military officer who served for more than 40 years, opposed the administration’s failed plans to close Guantanamo and has strongly defended how the military treats detainees, telling The Washington Post in 2014 that criticism of their treatment by human rights groups and others was “foolishness.’’
He also publicly expressed concerns over the Pentagon’s order in December that for the first time opened all jobs in combat units to women, including the most elite forces such as the Navy SEALs. “They’re saying we are not going to change any standards,” Kelly told reporters at the Pentagon, according to the Marine Corps Times, a weekly newspaper. “There will be great pressure, whether it’s 12 months from now, four years from now, because the question will be asked whether we’ve let women into these other roles, why aren’t they staying in those other roles?’’
Kelly, whose son died in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban, met with Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Sunday. A statement from Trump’s transition team said the three “had a frank discussion about the global national security situation,’’ along with Kelly’s experience running the Southern Command. People familiar with the selection process said Trump’s team is interested in Kelly’s experience with the Southern border, where Trump wants to build his controversial wall to keep out illegal immigrants.
Townsend, who served as assistant to Bush for homeland security and counterterrorism, also held senior positions during 13 years at the Justice Department, including counsel to the attorney general for intelligence policy. If selected for DHS, she could also help Trump counter allegations that his Cabinet picks so far have lacked diversity.
Kelly and Townsend join a variety of names reported to be under consideration for DHS secretary, a crucial position whose occupant would oversee Trump’s proposed crackdown on illegal immigration. DHS is the third-largest Cabinet department, with more than 240,000 employees whose responsibilities range from fighting terrorism and protecting the president to enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is also a top contender for the post, people familiar with the transition process have said. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s name has been floated, though Christie was recently removed from his high-profile role leading Trump’s transition team.
Also in the mix but considered less likely to be nominated, sources said, are ousted Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio and Milwaukee County sheriff David Clarke. Both are vocal Trump supporters whose strong views have caused controversy. Clarke, who is black, has compared the Black Lives Matter movement to the Islamic State, while Arpaio, who just lost his bid for reelection, is known for forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and has long been accused of anti-Hispanic bias.
Additionally, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach appeared to be carrying a written plan for DHS into a meeting with Trump on Sunday. According to one page of the plan photographed by the Associated Press, it focused in part on questioning “high-risk” immigrants over their alleged support for Islamic sharia law.
Kobach entered the national spotlight several years ago when he advised Mitt Romney on the idea of “self-deportation” for illegal immigrants during the 2012 presidential campaign. A former chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, Kobach also wrote Arizona’s strict immigration law, and he has helped lead the fight against President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.
It is unclear how seriously Kobach is under consideration for DHS, but he is a strong Trump supporter who helped influence the president-elect’s views on immigration.
But a readout from the transition team suggested the Kansan was discussing “border security, international terrorism and reforming federal bureaucracy” with the president-elect.
Trump has pledged a crackdown on illegal immigration that would require an exorbitantly expensive — and logistically difficult — operation to remove millions from the country.
Overseeing it all would be DHS, which was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks primarily to coordinate the battle against terrorism but is now perhaps equally known for its immigration role. A beefed-up U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a DHS component, would be instrumental if Trump follows through on rounding up far more undocumented immigrants. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, also part of DHS, would come under increased pressure to better secure the Southwest border.
Perhaps the DHS secretary’s most controversial role would be to help oversee the building of Trump’s wall along that border. The wall is the president-elect’s signature proposal, and he told The Washington Post in an interview last year that “building a wall is easy. . . . It’s not even a difficult project if you know what you’re doing.’’
But experts say the structure would face numerous obstacles, such as environmental and engineering problems and fights with ranchers and others who would resist giving up their land.
Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.