Trump: Nielsen 'tremendously qualified' to lead Homeland Security

President Trump on Thursday formally announced he will nominate his deputy chief of staff, Kirstjen Nielsen, to lead the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

"I call upon the Senate ... to confirm this tremendously qualified and talented nominee," Trump said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House.

Trump cheered Nielsen as "a dedicated leader whose priority is always the safety and security of our country and our citizens, not politics or ideology."

If she is confirmed, Nielsen will lead a sprawling Cabinet agency charged with securing the nation’s borders and airports, enforcing immigration laws, coordinating disaster relief efforts and overseeing the Secret Service and Coast Guard.

“I share the president’s profound commitment to the security of our country and the safety of the American people," Nielsen said during the ceremony. “Mr. President, if confirmed, it will be the highest honor of my life to again work with and support these remarkable public servants and to continue to serve all of the American people.”

The 15-year-old department has seen its importance increase in the Trump administration, which has put a premium on toughening national security.

Nielsen has close ties to chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE; she served as his top aide when he was Homeland Security secretary. She moved with the retired Marine Corps general to the White House when Trump tapped him as his chief of staff.

“Kirstjen was integral to the progress we have made in controlling our borders, confronting gang violence, preparing for disasters and protecting aviation security," Trump said Thursday afternoon. 

She is respected in Republican national security circles and is expected to face a relatively easy path to confirmation.

Before joining the department earlier this year, Nielsen was a senior fellow at George Washington University's Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. The 45-year-old previously worked at the Transportation Security Administration and served on President George W. Bush’s Homeland Security Council.

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“Ms. Nielsen's long history of service with the department, her cybersecurity experience and her tenure serving with Gen. John Kelly would serve her well as the next secretary of the Department of Homeland Security,” Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonDemocratic Homeland Security members request additional DHS nominee testimony Key differences between the Senate and House tax plans Senate panel delays vote on Trump’s Homeland Security pick MORE (R-Wis.) said in a statement Wednesday.

Johnson said he would work closely with the administration and the panel’s ranking member, Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillDemocratic Homeland Security members request additional DHS nominee testimony Senate panel delays vote on Trump’s Homeland Security pick Steve Israel: ‘We had a better time at the DMZ than we’re going to have tonight’ MORE (D-Mo.), to “expedite the consideration of Ms. Nielsen's nomination.”

But Nielsen has also been the subject of scrutiny over her current role at the White House. She has reportedly acted as Kelly’s enforcer as he has sought to impose order and discipline on a chaotic and disorganized West Wing. That includes restricting access to the Oval Office and streamlining the flow of information to the president.

One former Bush administration official expressed concern over her selection, describing Nielsen as less qualified than Elaine Duke, who is currently leading the department in an acting capacity.

“I think her credentials are being a little bit inflated,” said the former official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “It seems like more of a lazy pick than a wide search.”

Her nomination comes at a time when the president and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which DHS oversees, have come under staunch criticism for the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Trump urged the Senate to "put politics aside" and swiftly confirm Nielsen “in light of the serious threats facing our country and the natural disaster recovery efforts." 

Nielsen would replace Duke, a career civil servant, who has led DHS since the end of July when Trump picked Kelly as White House chief of staff.

Duke received praise for her handling of hurricanes that hit Texas and Florida, but has come under fire over the devastation in Puerto Rico. She was forced to clarify her claim last month that the federal response to Maria is “a good news story.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), a ranking member of the House Homeland Security panel, said he was pleased Trump had selected a permanent agency head “after letting the critical national security position remain vacant as the nation faced multiple major hurricanes and a domestic terrorism attack.”

Thompson said, however, he is “very concerned” about Nielsen’s work in the Bush administration “during its botched response to Hurricane Katrina and am fearful that DHS — as well as this president — has not learned all the lessons from that tragedy given what we are seeing unravel in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”

Updated at 3:01 p.m.