There are plenty of Trump administration nominees that Senate Democrats are gravely concerned about. Gen. John Kelly, the retired Marine nominated to head the perpetually troubled Department of Homeland Security, is not one of them.
If anything, Kelly — like another of the retired generals President-elect Donald Trump has picked for a top post, Defense Secretary nominee James Mattis — is a lot more respected among Democrats and policy wonks than his boss-to-be. As head of US Northern Command (coordinating the armed forces’ operations in North America) and Southern Command (Central and South America), he showed a willingness to work with foreign governments and an interest in complex solutions for complex problems — both things that many Democrats would like to see far more of from Trump.
So when Kelly goes before the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee Tuesday, they’ll be less interested in shooting down his nomination than in finding out how he plans to lead one of the country’s most sprawling and poorly-managed Cabinet departments — and how willing he’ll be to challenge the president. Here are a few topics you can expect to come up.
Building the wall… As DHS Secretary, building Trump’s promised US/Mexico border “wall” would primarily be Kelly’s job. What that wall would look like; when Trump and company are actually planning to finish it; what it will mean for legal immigrants or asylum-seekers — these are all policy questions that Trump and his top aides have avoided but that Kelly, who will be under oath, will have to answer.
…and getting Mexico to pay for it: The Trump transition team is working with House Republicans to get Congress to appropriate enough money to start construction, leading Trump critics to call the president-elect out for breaking his “promise” to get Mexico to pay for it. Expect Kelly to get questions about the supposed flip-flop.
The reason that this is interesting, though, is that Trump’s election has had huge domestic effects on the Mexican economy and public safety. The peso has lost a lot of value since Trump was elected (partly because of speculation about what he might do). In order to stabilize the currency and the economy, the Mexican government’s going to need a strong working relationship with the incoming administration. If it can’t fix the weakening peso, it’s likely to continue to see civil unrest over weak currency and high gas prices — which could spur more Mexicans to try to flee for the US.
Kelly has a reputation from the military for working well with foreign heads of state. Furthermore, he tends to understand that economic instability in other countries in the region is bad for US border security. It’s going to be very interesting to see whether Kelly endorses the Trumpian attitude of playing hardball with the Mexican government, or whether he expresses concerns that pushing Mexico too far might end up making the US less safe.
The Muslim ban: DHS will play a huge role in implementing Trump’s promised “extreme vetting” for certain immigrants entering the US. Kelly will probably be asked if he supports a ban on Muslim immigration to the US — a proposal that Trump floated during the campaign, but that has since morphed into a ban on immigration from countries with a history of terrorism or where governments can’t properly screen applicants rather than an outright ban on members of one religious group.
Deportations: Trump’s immigration policy focuses on punishment of people who have already arrived in the US without papers. Kelly hasn’t talked much about domestic immigration policy, but he’s pointed out that “if the countries where these migrants come from have reasonable levels of violence and reasonable levels of economic opportunity, then the people won’t leave to come here.”
That’s a much softer attitude toward unauthorized immigrants than the Trump administration (not to mention rank-and-file members of the immigration-enforcement agencies) tends to take, and Kelly will almost certainly be asked what he thinks needs to be done to address the unauthorized immigrant population.
DHS management: Kelly has little experience in civilian bureaucracy, and DHS is widely regarded to be one of the toughest bureaucracies to manage in the federal government. How Kelly plans to deal with his often disorganized, often recalcitrant department — on issues from low employee morale and management/labor clashes, to interagency coordination, to making sure that agencies like FEMA remain competent and well-funded enough to respond to disasters should they arise — isn’t the most politically exciting topic, but it’s one that senators are probably going to be concerned about.