WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security says closing the border to the “illegal movement of people and things” will be his top priority if confirmed.
Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly outlined his priorities in a detailed questionnaire to senators. The questionnaire was released Tuesday ahead of Kelly’s confirmation hearing later in the day.
Kelly embraced Trump’s call for a strong border wall with Mexico. He said that achieving his top priority of shutting down illegal movements “starts with physical obstacles like a border wall and supporting surveillance technologies.” He said it will also require constant patrols from federal and local law enforcement.
The confirmation of Kelly, a retired Marine general, is almost assured, but members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee will likely use the hearing to debate the tough immigration and border security policies that were centerpieces of Trump’s presidential campaign.
Kelly is one of several retired generals tapped for top positions by Trump. That has raised some concerns about undue military influence in his administration, weakening the American tradition of civilian control of government.
But Kelly is widely respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, and his military experience is applicable to his Homeland Security role. He’s the former head of the military’s Southern Command, based in South Florida, which routinely works with the Department of Homeland Security to combat human trafficking and drug smuggling. The military command has also partnered with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a part of Homeland Security, to help rescue unaccompanied child immigrants trying to make their way from Central America to the United States alone.
In the questionnaire, Kelly said he is committed to telling “truth to power.” The commitment addresses concerns that some lawmakers have about the president-elect’s willingness to take in points of view that clash with his own.
Kelly told the committee that his that his greatest successes during 40-plus years in the military are: “taking care of my people, speaking ‘truth to power,’ and successfully completing every mission I have ever been assigned.” He said he has worked with many senior U.S. officials during his career.
“I never hesitated to disagree with any of them, or make difficult recommendations when appropriate,” Kelly said.
Also, in newly released ethics disclosures, Kelly said that if confirmed he will resign positions with multiple consulting and government contractor firms and defense contractor DynCorp. Kelly listed his salary with DynCorp, a company awarded a 2016 contract from DHS to train Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, as more than $166,000.
In a statement prepared for the Senate hearing, Republican chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin praised Kelly as having a “deep knowledge and understanding of the grave security threats facing our nation and the sacrifices that are required to keep us safe.”
Kelly joined the Marine Corps in 1970. He is a battle-hardened, blunt-talking veteran who served three tours in Iraq. He was also the highest-ranking officer to lose a child in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. His son, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed in November 2010 in Afghanistan.
Kelly would be the fifth person to lead the department, which includes agencies that protect the president, respond to disasters, enforce immigration laws, protect the nation’s coastlines, stop drug smuggling and secure air travel.
Kelly, in his statement for the committee, said he has a “profound respect for the rule of law” and as secretary “will always strive to uphold it.” That is likely to resonate with Republicans, who have complained that President Barack Obama has been too lax in his enforcement of immigration laws and have generally supported Trump’s proposals.
Trump has vowed to deport millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally, focusing first on criminals. Kelly is likely to be asked his views on how to accomplish that.
Trump pledged during the campaign to build a border wall — and have Mexico pay for it — though since winning the White House he has softened his stance on both the kind of barrier he wants and how it will be financed.
Last week, Republicans suggested the wall could be paid for from regular spending legislation authorized by Congress. Trump insists that Mexico would reimburse the United States for the costs, but Mexico says it will not do so.