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Top Kelly aide and cybersecurity expert will be Trump's pick to lead Homeland Security

Joseph Tanfani and Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump plans to nominate Kirstjen Nielsen, a top aide to chief of staff John Kelly, to take over the Department of Homeland Security, a Homeland Security official confirmed Wednesday.

The appointment of Nielsen, which could come as early as Thursday, likely would mean a continuation of the policies followed by Kelly. The retired Marine general won Trump's praise for his tough approach to immigration enforcement during his six months running the department.

Nielsen, who served as Kelly's deputy at Homeland Security before following him to the White House, has extensive expertise in cybersecurity, a top priority for the department.

In picking her, Trump passed over potential nominees who have closer ties to administration officials who favor hard-line efforts to restrict both legal and illegal immigration.

Among the people under consideration, according to a former Homeland Security official, were Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state who is heading Trump's voter fraud commission and who has been a leader in the immigration-restriction movement, and Republican Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania, who launched his political career as an anti-immigration mayor.

The decision to go with Nielsen indicates that Kelly, by recommending a top aide and a Homeland Security veteran, was able to exert more influence than Stephen Miller, Trump's speechwriter and domestic policy adviser, who has pushed measures to severely restrict immigration.

Acting Secretary Elaine Duke told her staff about the expected appointment Wednesday, according to the Homeland Security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to comment on the internal discussions. The choice was first reported by Politico.

The sprawling department includes the agencies responsible for policing borders and immigration, a central focus for the Trump administration, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The department also includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency, meaning Nielsen also will assume responsibility for marshaling the government's response to restoring storm-battered Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida. That effort is likely to be a major topic of her confirmation hearings.

Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said he is "concerned" about Nielsen's readiness to take over FEMA, given her tenure in the Bush administration during Hurricane Katrina.

"It is extremely important that the DHS secretary stay above the partisan fray and not allow the position to be a political pawn of the White House," he said.

Nielsen served on the White House Homeland Security Council as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and worked on global cybersecurity policy for the United Nations.

She also worked on legislative policy in the Transportation Security Administration, another component of the Homeland Security Department.

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