More than two months after making John F. Kelly his chief of staff, President Trump is not close to nominating a replacement to head the Department of Homeland Security, a delay that is likely to leave the agency without a Senate-confirmed leader for longer than any period in its history.
Asked when he would pick Kelly’s replacement, Trump told reporters on Sept. 29 that “we’ll be making that decision probably within a month.”
With 240,000 employees, a $40 billion budget and a mile-wide organizational chart, the DHS is managing multiple threats, crises and disasters, both natural and man-made. While leading the recovery efforts after three major hurricanes, the department is also busy policing America’s borders, airports and seas; implementing Trump’s controversial immigration policies; and guarding the country’s electoral system and infrastructure from unprecedented hacking attempts, among other tasks.
Acting secretary Elaine Duke has been in the role since July 31, but she does not have a background in emergency management, counterterrorism or law enforcement. Though she has earned mostly praise for her stewardship of the agency during a difficult stretch, she is not considered a candidate for the secretary job, according to several administration officials with knowledge of the search.
Duke continues to enjoy the support of the White House, particularly Kelly, her former boss, and that confidence has lessened some of the urgency to quickly nominate a replacement, according to the officials, who, like others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the search publicly.
Aside from her widely derided characterization of the federal response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as “a good news story,” Duke is generally viewed as a competent manager and steady hand.
Presidents have typically moved to fill the DHS secretary position quickly, rather than leaving it to someone in a fill-in role. In the fall of 2013, acting DHS secretary Rand Beers served in a temporary capacity for 31/2 months, but since Trump’s next choice will face Senate confirmation, Duke’s tenure is likely to exceed that.
“I’m concerned that a position so important to the security of this country is being left to an acting person rather than a presidentially appointed secretary,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), the top-ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
“An acting secretary can do some things, but it’s not like having a permanent person in there, and right now we don’t even have a nominee,” Thompson said.
Trump’s eventual pick will test the prevailing political currents inside the White House, and particularly Kelly’s influence over the president, according to current and former administration and DHS officials.
While Kelly and others are said to favor a candidate with management experience in counterterrorism, law enforcement or the military, others in the administration are eager to see an immigration hard-liner in the role, particularly with the DHS at the center of a looming showdown over ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Kirstjen Nielsen, Kelly’s deputy and a cybersecurity expert, has extensive experience at the DHS and the White House and is viewed as one of the prime candidates for the job, according to current and former DHS officials. Others include Tom Bossert, the president’s homeland security adviser, and Kevin McAleenan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, was a subject of frequent speculation after Kelly’s departure, but persons with knowledge of the search said he is no longer considered a front-runner because Trump’s core supporters view him as insufficiently rigid on immigration.
“I don’t think the position of DHS secretary has been politicized so much as the issues have become more politicized,” said Jane Holl Lute, who was deputy DHS secretary from 2009 to 2013.
Current and former DHS officials say Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, in particular, is eager to send a signal that the White House will not back down on DACA, deportations and other contentious immigration issues, especially after some conservatives mocked the president as “Amnesty Don” after the outlines of his immigration deal with Senate Democrats emerged.
The president’s well-known fondness for martial figures and police commanders could favor Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose demeanor — more beat cop than lawyer — has particular appeal to Trump.
Also frequently mentioned is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a hero to immigration hard-liners, who was appointed by Trump in May to co-chair a presidential commission investigating allegations of voter fraud in the 2016 election. But Kobach is a polarizing figure who would face a difficult confirmation fight, and administration officials say Kelly doesn’t want him in the DHS job.
White House officials said the delay in picking a nominee has to do less with political divisions within the administration than with the challenge of finding the right person for the job — someone who must be part cop, lawyer, chief executive and politician, with a disaster always looming.
“It’s a heavy load. Whoever has that job feels a deep, cold dread in their soul every time the phone rings in the evening, because it’s never good news,” said Stewart Baker, the top DHS policy official under President George W. Bush. “But you learn how to handle emergencies, and handle emergencies in a political environment.”
Trump earned rare bipartisan praise when he picked Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general. But the delay in choosing his replacement has increased concern among many lawmakers that the president will use the nomination to fire up the part of his base that loved chanting “Build the wall!” at his rallies and still expects him to do so.
Several Democratic and Republican lawmakers who sit on the committees responsible for DHS oversight say they are looking for the administration to nominate someone with broad appeal who could be quickly confirmed.
“Obviously the border is important, and disaster relief,” said Rep. Peter T. King (N.Y.), one of the leading Republican members of the House Homeland Security Committee. “But this department was created to stop terrorism, so it should be someone with a strong counterterrorism or law enforcement background.”