Donald Trump’s most polarizing promises on the campaign trail concerned how he would protect the homeland and treat Muslims inside the United States and abroad. Whether and how those boasts become national policy depends heavily on his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security. So it’s interesting that one leading candidate is going public with detailed — and relatively workable — plans to turn Trump’s ideas into reality.
The leading contenders for homeland security secretary are House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), retired Marine Gen. John Kelly and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. Kelly would give Trump a military leader who could run the southern border with efficiency. Kobach, who accidentally revealed some of his ideas during a recent visit to Trump Tower, is reliably conservative but has limited experience.
McCaul will make his case for the job in his second annual “State of Homeland Security Address” on Dec. 7. It’s not a coincidence his speech coincides with the anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Overall, McCaul will agree with Trump on most issues, such as “extreme vetting” of immigrants and refugees, building a border structure with Mexico and deporting criminal illegal immigrants.
But McCaul’s speech also includes a more nuanced plan for dealing with the most pressing terrorism problem facing the United States: the threat of Islamic radicalization inside the country. He has worked on the issue for years, sometimes at odds with staunch conservatives. McCaul’s approach is to strike a balance between cooperating with American Muslim communities and policing them, rather than cutting off government support to Muslim organizations.
“The Obama administration’s counter-radicalization program has been a failure,” McCaul told me. “I would repeal and replace that office with more of a radical Islamist-based threat picture. And the way you do that is through credible voices in the community and testimonials.”
McCaul wants to narrow counter-radicalization efforts to focus on Islamic extremism first and foremost, work with the private sector to remove terrorist content from the Internet, scale up counter-message propaganda using local Muslim voices and engage with Muslim communities to spot warning signs, as is done extensively in Europe. He also wants to get Silicon Valley to deny bad actors dark spaces to communicate in encrypted apps.
What McCaul represents for Trump is a senior lawmaker who is steeped in the issues, has an experienced staff ready to go and has legislation prepared to bring Congress along. What McCaul represents for the country is a voice of moderation for a president-elect who has often gone to extremes when talking about Islam.
“The Muslim community will tell you that al-Qaeda and ISIS are radicals who have hijacked their religion so you have to work with these communities to eradicate the bad actors,” McCaul told me.
During the campaign, McCaul joined with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former attorney general Michael Mukasey to write a memo that was key to Trump’s evolution away from calling for a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Instead, Trump shifted to a pause in immigration from countries where the threat is high and vetting insufficient.
In his address, McCaul will define “extreme vetting” as increasing visa security by deploying more investigators at diplomatic posts abroad. He will propose further tightening the Visa Waiver Program to hold partner countries accountable for screening on their end. McCaul’s proposal on Muslim immigration is to “suspend admissions from major terror-threat countries, like Syria, until we are confident terrorist groups cannot use pathways like our refugee program as a Trojan Horse to send operatives to attack us,” according to a preview of his remarks.
McCaul supports taking a military approach to securing the southern border and even inserted language into the defense authorization bill that would establish a military-style joint task force to command all government personnel there. “General Kelly would be a good guy to implement that,” he told me, suggesting his rival for a sub-Cabinet position.
Some of McCaul’s proposals are sure to be controversial. He wants to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization and join with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi in cracking down on its members. McCaul’s plans to engage with Muslim communities have run afoul of some conservatives because they involve using government funds to support Muslim groups.
Homeland security secretary is not a job for a rigid ideologue or decorated military officer. Management skill, direct subject-matter expertise and a willingness to engage communities of interest constructively are required. McCaul’s plans and experience come closest to making Trump’s homeland security policies workable in the real world.
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