White House ‘cyber expert’ picked for homeland security post
US President Donald Trump will nominate Kirstjen Nielsen, who as top aide to his White House chief of staff has sought to instil order in Trump’s team, to lead the Department of Homeland Security, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Nielsen would take the reins at a sprawling department with more than 240,000 employees that is responsible for US border and airport security, immigration policy, disaster response, refugee admissions and other matters.
Nielsen, 45, is a cybersecurity expert with a considerable resume in homeland security that includes work at the department’s Transportation Security Administration and on former Republican President George W. Bush’s White House Homeland Security Council.
Nielsen was retired Marine Corps General John Kelly’s chief of staff when he was secretary of homeland security during the opening months of Trump’s presidency. Kelly brought her to the White House as his deputy when Trump named him chief of staff in July to replace Reince Priebus after only six months on the job.
The nomination requires Senate confirmation.
Nielsen’s departure from the White House would mark the latest upheaval in Trump’s White House team. She was responsible for carrying out some of Kelly’s orders on who gets access to the president. As a result, she has irritated some White House officials who now have limited contact with Trump, according to sources.
Kelly has sought to bring more order to the chaotic West Wing since replacing Priebus. Trump has welcomed the changes to some extent, although he has privately confided to friends that the limitations on access to the Oval Office sometimes go too far.
Putting Nielsen into the Homeland Security post will allow Trump and Kelly to keep a close eye on the department, but getting her out of the White House could permit some of Kelly’s strictness to be relaxed.
The department has been led by an acting secretary, Elaine Duke, since Kelly took the White House post.
Cybersecurity is one of the primary issues under the Homeland Security Department’s portfolio. Nielsen previously worked at a think tank at George Washington University and is considered well-versed in some of the more technical missions at the department, such as sharing cyberthreat information with the private sector.
The department was created after the September 11 attacks on the United States exposed cracks in the country’s homeland security apparatus.
The appointment comes at a busy time for the department, with one of its agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, overseeing disaster relief in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida as well as wildfire-ravaged areas of California. The department also is responsible for US border security.
The department is a major player in implementing Trump’s aggressive stance toward deporting illegal immigrants, as well as vetting the lower number of refugees Trump has decided to allow into the United States and devising his travel ban on six Muslim-majority nations, North Korea and certain Venezuelans.
Nielsen is not known for hard-line views on immigration like those of White House adviser Stephen Miller.
If confirmed, Nielsen would be the first homeland security secretary to have previously served as a rank-and-file member of the department. Some previous DHS secretaries have been accused of not possessing enough technical fluency to address cyberthreats facing the nation.
“Kirstjen’s a policy wonk at heart, especially when it comes to cyber,” Frank Cilluffo, a former senior homeland security official under Bush who worked with Nielsen at George Washington University.
Nielsen would immediately be given the task of helping coordinate the federal response to potential cyberattacks that target elections. US intelligence agencies claim that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election to try to help Trump win.
Russia has denied any meddling and Trump has denied collusion between his campaign and Moscow.