Top Aide To John Kelly Named To Head DHS

Kirsten Nielsen, who currently serves as Deputy White House Chief of Staff under retired General John Kelly, has been selected to become the new head of the Department of Homeland Security:

WASHINGTON — President Trump said on Wednesday that he intended to name Kirstjen Nielsen, a top White House aide, to lead the Department of Homeland Security, elevating a former homeland security official in the George W. Bush administration who has lately worked to impose order in Mr. Trump’s chaotic West Wing.

Mr. Trump announced his choice in a statement that noted Ms. Nielsen’s “extensive professional experience in the areas of homeland security policy and strategy, cybersecurity, critical infrastructure and emergency management.” She is the first nominee for the homeland security post who had served in the department, according to the statement.

If confirmed, Ms. Nielsen would replace John F. Kelly, who was homeland security secretary until he left in July to serve as the White House chief of staff and bring discipline and direction to a West Wing plagued by disorganization and infighting. Mr. Kelly had drafted Ms. Nielsen to be his chief of staff at the Homeland Security department, and when the president plucked him for the White House, he brought her as his No. 2.

Known as a no-nonsense player and policy wonk, Ms. Nielsen appears unlikely to land at the center of the type of controversies that have engulfed Mr. Trump’s presidency. But her regimented style in a freewheeling and often dysfunctional West Wing frustrated some senior officials and people close to the president, who chafed under her dictates. On Wednesday, some of them described Ms. Nielsen’s promotion as a solution to a toxic personnel situation, while others fretted privately that her departure would create a void at the White House that would be difficult to fill.

Mr. Kelly pushed hard for her selection, making a personal appeal to Mr. Trump during a monthslong search process. Among the other candidates considered, according to people familiar with the process, was Representative Michael McCaul, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Former colleagues said on Wednesday that Ms. Nielsen was well qualified.

“She’s a total homeland security expert — absolutely has no learning curve,” said Michael Allen, who worked with Ms. Nielsen during the Bush administration. “She’s an experienced manager, she’s an implementer, she knows how to get under the hood and figure out what needs to be connected to what.”

Added Frances Townsend, her boss at the White House during the Bush administration: “She is tough as nails, competent and has rightly earned the president’s respect.”

Mr. Kelly and Ms. Nielsen arrived at the White House after a tumultuous period that led to the departure of Reince Priebus, Mr. Trump’s first chief of staff, and Sean Spicer, his original press secretary. Mr. Kelly, who spends much of his time managing the president and working to defuse brewing confrontations between Mr. Trump and senior advisers, has leaned on Ms. Nielsen to manage and impose discipline on the rest of the White House staff.

It is not clear who will play that role after she leaves, and her departure will leave a hole at the White House as Mr. Trump faces an array of challenges, including confronting the threat from North Korea, addressing ruptures with his cabinet and crucial Republican lawmakers and trying to push a large tax cut through Congress.

There’s been some suggestion from Gabe Sherman in Vanity Fair and others that this move could be a sign that Kelly himself, who is rumored to be becoming increasingly frustrated in a position where it has proven impossible to control the White House since he can’t control the President, is getting ready to jump ship himself and that he’s looking for a “soft landing” for someone who has been a loyal aide going back many years. Whether that’s the case remains to be seen, but with Trump back to irrational tweeting on a daily basis and warring with everyone from Tennessee Senator Bob Corker to his own Secretary of State and NBC News, one could certainly understand if Kelly were frustrated.

As for this pick itself, Nielsen does appear on paper to be qualified for the position and it’s about time that the role of DHS Secretary, which has been filled by a deputy since Kelly left in July, finally gets filled with a Presidential appointee.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Gustopher says:

    FEMA is under the Department of Homeland Security, and could really use some leadership. They are stretched to or past their limits, and Puerto Rico is suffering because of this.

    Or Trump will follow through with his threat to just abandon Puerto Rico…