Despite the acrimony around many of President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet selections, the confirmation hearing for one of them, Homeland Security Secretary candidate Gen. John Kelly, appears to be going smoothly.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates introduced Kelly, saying the former general was “a man of great moral authority” who Gates would trust with his life.
During the “lovefest,” as Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp called to it, Kelly was asked almost nothing other than what Slate columnist Fred Kaplan called “softballs” and answered them with what Sen. Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the homeland security committee, referred to as “good answers.”
Kelly is the US military’s longest-serving general, having retired from a 45-year Marine Corps career in 2016 as a four-star general, with US Southern Command as his last post. As the head of Homeland Security, Kelly would oversee several security and law-enforcement agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and the Transportation Security Administration.
Kelly’s previous comments as leader of US Southern Command and statements he made during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday indicate that his approach to the Homeland Security department’s duties may not always align with the Trump administration’s stated policies.
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During the hearing, Kelly said that he had no issue with”speaking truth to power,” and many of his responses indicated that not only would he break from many of Trump’s plans for US security policy, but that he also has an understanding of Latin America and the specific dynamics driving events there.
“He does see everything from a really, strictly military perspective. He looks at threats and not so much at political trends or opportunities. So he’s always looking at the worst-case scenario things, and you saw that a lot in his words and testimonies over the years,” Adam Isacson, the senior associate for defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider.
“But that does mean that he at least is aware that violence is a problem, corruption is a problem, even sometimes that inequality and poverty are problems,” Isacson said.
An often-repeated element of Trump’s foreign policy has been his intention to build a wall along the US border with Mexico – a barrier Trump has said will staunch the flow of unauthorized immigrants as well as the crime and drugs the president-elect claims they bring with them.
On this point, however, Kelly seems likely to break with the White House.
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When asked about the wall during his hearing, Kelly replied that, “as a military person,” he was aware that “physical defenses in themselves would not do the job.”
“My impression was that as a guy who liked inter-agency work with law enforcement and intelligence, [Kelly] would want more boots on the ground first. He’d probably want more technology first, maybe even more of a sort of a rearrangement around almost a military structure,” Isacson said of Kelly’s possible approach to border enforcement.
“And I think Kelly would probably listen a lot to the people under him who’ve been doing this their whole careers,” Isacson added, “and you don’t find a lot of border-patrol agents who want to cover the entire border in a wall.”
As chief of US Southern Command, Kelly has for years dealt with many of the problems he would confront as Homeland Security chief – drug-trafficking, migration, and cooperation with Latin American governments in particular.
But Kelly’s attitude on addressing issues like drug trafficking and human migration likely go beyond a strictly law-enforcement approach or other one-note, harsh responses offered by Trump or his surrogates.
He has said border security cannot “be attempted as an endless series of ‘goal-line stands’ on the one-foot line at the official ports of entry or along the thousands of miles of border between this country and Mexico.”
“I believe the defense of the Southwest border starts 1,500 miles to the south, with Peru, which is very active in going after drug traffic,” Kelly said in his comments before the Senate on Tuesday. And, during his tenure at Southern Command, he referred to “the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow” as challenges to US national security.
“They, most of the time, don’t come here for any other purpose except to have economic opportunity and to escape violence,” Kelly said on Tuesday, when asked by people from Latin America head north to the US border.
He has supported increasing aid toward economic development and education and an emphasis on human-rights issues as means to address instability in the region, particularly restive parts of Central America.
While head of Southern Command, he repeatedly asked Congress to make more money and resources available to the region, saying that countries in the region were turning to others states – Israel, China, or Russia – for intelligence or surveillance aid.
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Kelly is “cognizant of the fact that the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, as effective as they are, can only do so much,” Peter Vincent, a former legal adviser at the Homeland Security department, told Business Insider.
“He understands better than most that providing economic development and human rights support to our allies, especially those in the developing world, is absolutely essential to combatting violent extremism,” Vincent added. “Assisting our allies in providing real economic and career opportunities to the otherwise marginalized, disaffected and disillusioned citizens of these countries is critically important to protecting the homeland.”
During his hearing on Tuesday, Kelly also broke from Trump’s pronouncements on several key issues.
When asked if he thought the World War II internment of Japanese Americans provided a model for a roundup of Muslim Americans, Kelly said it didn’t but noted that he wasn’t a lawyer. He also pushed back on the targeting of religion.
“I don’t think it’s ever appropriate to focus on something like religion as the only factor (in counterterrorism),” Kelly said. “I don’t agree with registering people based on ethnic or religion.”
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On the issue of terrorism and security in the Western Hemisphere, however, Kelly’s comments have raised questions.
When asked why the southern border posed such a threat during a 2015 senate hearing, Kelly, then still the chief of US Southern Command, answered:
“… there’s 40,000 Americans that die every year from the drugs that move up through my part of the world, and … into our homeland – 40,000 people a year.”
“You know, since 9/11, there’s – half a million people have died from narcoterrorism … Five hundred thousand Americans have died. Very few have died from, you know, traditional, if you will since 9/11. … So I see that as a huge threat.”
While it’s true that drugs kill about 40,000 people a year, at least one-third of them die from overdoses of legally prescribed opioids, which do not arrive in the US from Latin America. There also doesn’t appear to be any official data supporting the claim of a half-million Americans killed by terrorism since September 11, 2001.
A 2014 study supported by the Homeland Security department put the number of US deaths from all kinds of post-September 11 terrorism at less than 100, and a RAND Corp. study found US terrorism deaths between 2001 and 2009 to be less than 100.
Kelly, in referring to deaths from narcoterrorism since September 11, “is undoubtedly including the countless lives destroyed and lost as a result of drug addiction and overdoses in the United States,” Vincent told Business Insider, “especially attributable to the opioid epidemic, as result of the massive amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine trafficked into the United States by these transnational terrorist organizations.”
“You look at everything he said when he was at South Com – he has a tendency toward hyperbole. He liked to use exaggerated phrases,” Isacson told Business Insider. “When you’re in charge of Southern Command, which is sort of like this little-brother command that doesn’t get anywhere near the resources any of the others do, a little hyperbole before congress probably helps you to try to get some resources your way.”
‘He tells it like it is’
While Kelly’s oversight of US Southern Command involved many of the issues he will face as head of Homeland Security, the matter of immigration enforcement – likely to play a central role of Trump administration policy – was outside his remit.
“One thing he has no record on is immigration. … And would General Kelly be an enthusiastic executor of that kind of a policy?” Isacson asked, referring to Trump’s proposals to deport millions of people from the US. “I met him many times, and I didn’t get that impression of him.”
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During the confirmation process, Kelly has indicated that he would pursue deportations in fitting with the law.
“The Congress has passed longstanding laws making foreign nationals without legal status removable from the United States,” Kelly said in written responses submitted to the Senate committe prior to his hearing, “and it is proper for DHS, like any other law enforcement organization, to faithfully execute the laws on the books.”
When pressed on the Trump administration’s deportation policies, Kelly demurred, saying he had not been involved in the incoming administration’s immigration-policy discussions, but he did say law-abiding undocumented immigrants would “probably not be at the top of the list” and that “the law will guide me.”
Asked about detaining illegal immigrants who hadn’t faced trial previously, Kelly said, “I’m pretty committed to the Constitution.”
Isacson, who has said he doesn’t know Kelly to have “antipathy” migrants, said deportations on the scale Trump says he wants to carry out would be a unique challenge.
“Will he willingly and happily be somebody who splits up thousands, tens of thousands of families? I don’t know,” Isacson told Business Insider. “It’s hard to picture.”
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According to many, Kelly seems especially prepared for some of the bureaucratic and organizational challenges he would face at the head of the Homeland Security department.
“I found him to be extremely effective in coordinating multi-agency and multi-national efforts to combat both narcotrafficking and counterterrorism matters,” Vincent told Business Insider.
However, the complexity and cumbersome nature of the department may be exacerbated by the somewhat helter-skelter nature – so far, at least – of the Trump team’s approach to government policy. Whatever the eventual edicts handed down from the White House may be, those who’ve commanded him seem confident about how Kelly will handle them.
“He’s a Marine; he tells it like it is,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, to whom Kelly served as senior military assistant, told The New York Times. “The new administration will benefit from someone like John Kelly.”