Trump's nominee to lead homeland security sails through confirmation hearing

Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington.
Kirstjen Nielsen is sworn in before testifying to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on her nomination to be secretary of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - President Donald Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) cruised through her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday (Nov 8), easily fielding questions on an array of security issues while making no stumbles or gaffes.

Kirstjen Nielsen, 45, the White House deputy chief of staff, was challenged on several topics by Democratic members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, but her hearing produced no controversies that might jeopardise a swift confirmation.

Handpicked for the job by John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, Nielsen would be the first DHS secretary with previous experience working at the agency, a bureaucratic behemoth of 240,000 employees and a US$40 billion (S$54.4 billion) annual budget.

Her familiarity with DHS's 22 sub-agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Customs and Border Protection, was not in doubt during the hearing, as she parried questions on airport security, extremist violence, immigration and how to stop opioids sent through the mail from China.

Asked if she would be capable of standing up to the White House, Nielsen told lawmakers she would not hesitate to challenge Trump if asked to do something "in violation of the law."

When Democratic Senator Jon Tester sought her views on Trump's plans for a wall along the Mexico border, Nielsen echoed Kelly's assessment, telling the panel: "There is no need for a wall from sea to shining sea."

Hardline conservatives, including author Ann Coulter, seized on those remarks and attacked Nielsen online, but she got mostly softballs from Republican senators on Wednesday, many of whom addressed her as if she were already in charge of DHS.

Senator Kamala Harris, one of the Trump administration's fiercest critics, pressed Nielsen on her plans for immigration enforcement, asking her what she would do if Congress fails to legalise the nearly 700,000 "Dreamers" whose protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will expire next year.

Nielsen told her if Congress failed to act, DACA recipients would not be an enforcement priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and said DHS would not use their personal information to track down and deport them.

Conservative proponents of tougher immigration policies expressed disappointment with Nielsen's response.

Nielsen would replace the acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke who is well-liked by DHS staffers but whose resume is short on counterterrorism or law enforcement credentials. Trump has said he wants Duke to remain at DHS as Nielsen's deputy.

Nielsen served as Kelly's deputy when he was DHS secretary from January to July. Her nomination was viewed as further evidence of the former Marine Corps general's effort to bring a more disciplined, conventional management approach to the administration.

Kelly brought Nielsen into the same role at the White House, where some staffers grumbled about her personality and viewed her as a stern enforcer.

In introducing Nielsen as his DHS pick last month, Trump praised her "sterling reputation" as a seasoned public servant dedicated to national security, "not politics or ideology."

Nielsen, an attorney and cybersecurity expert, started her career crafting legislation and policy at the Transportation Security Administration, then served as a White House adviser for emergency preparedness and disaster management under President George W. Bush.

Nielsen had that job when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and told the panel she'd gained critical insights into emergency management from the federal government's widely criticised response to the deadly storm, particularly the importance of having supplies and Fema contractors in place before disaster strikes.

Committee members are expected to vote on Thursday on her nomination, and the White House is pushing for a full Senate vote as soon as possible.