President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for homeland security secretary struck a markedly different tone from the president-elect on some of Trump’s signature issues on Tuesday, calling for increased outreach to Muslims and saying the controversial southwest border wall might not “be built anytime soon.’’
Retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly made the remarks at his confirmation hearing before a Senate committee that was unusual for its bipartisan tone during a highly partisan era. Kelly was greeted warmly by Republicans and Democrats alike and appeared to be on his way to an easy confirmation for the high-profile post of running the Department of Homeland Security.
Long known for his blunt manner, the former chief of the U.S. Southern Command added several layers of uncertainty to Trump’s promised crackdown on illegal immigration, which was the centerpiece of the president-elect’s campaign and which Kelly would oversee at DHS.
Kelly appeared to play down the importance of Trump’s promised wall, telling senators that “a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job’’ and that technology such as drones and sensors are also needed to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. He said the structure might not “be built anytime soon” because it is such an immense project, appearing to contradict Trump, who has said building the wall is “easy’’ and can be “done inexpensively.” House Republicans said last week they plan to fund the wall, which some experts have estimated will cost more than $20 billion.
Kelly said he would “keep an open mind” on the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. The 2012 initiative has given temporary protection from deportation to hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in the United States as children. Trump vowed during the campaign to reverse it.
The rhetorical difference between Trump and his prospective DHS chief was perhaps most striking on the subject of Muslims. While Trump once called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States as a counterterrorism measure, Kelly noted that when he was a Marine officer in Iraq, his forces secured stability in part by reaching out to clerics and other Muslim leaders.
“I don’t believe it is appropriate” to target any group of people solely based on religion or ethnic background, including through the development of a registry, Kelly told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
His remarks, which also included a vow to promote “tolerance,’’ seemed to reinforce his declaration during his opening remarks that he would always give “those in power” his “full candor.’’ Though he never openly broke with the future commander in chief, his words helped win over Democrats concerned about Trump’s incendiary remarks.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, thanked Kelly for “your service to this country” and said his vow to speak truth to power had been “music to my ears.’’ She added that the committee “is not here to participate in some partisan or political exercise.’’
“I very much believe in that principle, and I think we all anticipate that you will need it in your next job,’’ McCaskill said, noting her belief that Trump has “used some of his most extreme and divisive rhetoric on issues under DHS’s jurisdiction.’’
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the committee’s chairman, called Kelly “just an extraordinary individual, a great American who has served faithfully and sacrificed mightily for this nation.’’He called for a quick confirmation, adding that he “can’t think of a single individual more qualified” to run DHS than Kelly.
Trump’s team was drawn to Kelly because of his experience at the Southern Command, where he oversaw military operations across Central and South America and worked with several DHS agencies. Kelly is also a member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council, which advises the DHS secretary on a variety of security issues.
In documents released Tuesday by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, Kelly said that upon his confirmation he would resign from DynCorp International, a McLean military contractor where he has worked since June as an adviser at a salary of $166,000. He also vowed to resign from advisory or board positions at two other defense contractors and a private equity firm, which are paying him a combined $73,000.
Kelly also said he owns a consulting business, Oak Square Perspectives, but that it is dormant and has never had clients. He said it would remain dormant during his time at DHS.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and former defense secretary Robert M. Gates introduced Kelly at the confirmation hearing, with Gates calling Kelly “one of the finest people I’ve ever known. I would trust him with my life.’’ Kelly was a senior military adviser to Gates and also former defense secretary Leon E. Panetta during the Obama administration.
His role in the current administration — and his typically blunt style — led to clashes over women in combat and plans to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Kelly opposed President Obama’s failed plans to close Guantanamo, people familiar with his views said, and he has strongly defended how the military handles detainees. In a 2014 interview, he told The Washington Post 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 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. “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?’’
Even before he left the Obama administration, Kelly was sounding the alarm — in terms reminiscent of Trump’s campaign rhetoric — about drugs, terrorism and other cross-border threats that he said that he sees as emanating from Mexico and Central and South America. He has described the military’s counterterrorism operations abroad as a war against a “savage” enemy who would gladly launch more deadly attacks.
Yet Kelly has also stressed the importance of supporting human rights, and did so again during Tuesday’s hearing.
Kelly is widely respected at the Pentagon for his personal sacrifice and deep knowledge of the pain suffered by many military families. His son, 1st Lt. Robert M. Kelly, died in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban in 2010.
Kelly also repeatedly stressed the need to reduce the demand for illicit drugs in the U.S. as a way to diminish the flight of undocumented immigrants from central and South America.
“The Latins will tell you that because of your recreational use, thousands and thousands of Latins die every year that shouldn’t die,” he said. “There’s no such thing as non-violent use of recreational drugs.
As DHS secretary, Kelly would take on a major management challenge in what is considered to be one of Washington’s most challenging jobs, in part because the agency’s employee morale is among the federal government’s lowest. He said in his remarks that he recognizes “the many challenges facing the Department of Homeland Security,’’ and he vowed to tackle the department’s complicated and diffuse culture.