General John Kelly, nominee as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security for President-elect Donald Trump, right, sits while meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, not pictured, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017.Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Maya Rhodan
January 11, 2017

Gen. John Kelly, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for the Department of Homeland Security, presented a number of positions that differ from the incoming commander-in-chief during his Tuesday Senate confirmation hearing.

The president-elect’s proposed policies on Muslims, immigrants, a wall along the Southern border, hacking by Russians in the 2016 presidential election, and torture have concerned many Americans. But his pick for the top immigration and national security enforcement job, a former Marine Corps general who oversaw military operations in Central and South America, said Tuesday he does not believe in registering people on the basis of ethnicity or religion, downplayed the importance of a physical barrier on the border and committed himself to reaching out to Muslim communities if confirmed as Homeland Security Secretary.

“A physical barrier, in and of itself, will not do the job,” Kelly said. “It has to be a layered defense.”

The retired Marine Corps general would not definitively say whether or not he would use information recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, willingly provided to the federal government for enforcement when asked by Senator Kamala Harris of California. The future of the program is unknown under President-elect Trump, who promised to ramp up deportations in office.

“I’ll follow the law,” Kelly said Tuesday. “We have a limited capacity to execute the law so we would certainly look at the highest priority activities.” When probed further, Kelly said that given the limited assets available “law abiding individuals” probably would not top his priority list when it comes to removals, but he contended that immigration policy discussions for the next administration were ongoing.

Kelly’s positions on immigration enforcement and cyber security dominated the back and forth between the nominee and Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday evening. But the nominee faced faced a relatively deferential Senate committee during the hearing, especially when compared to the hearing faced by his likely cabinet colleague Sen. Jeff Sessions.

In fact, Sen. Harris’s was probably the harshest line of questioning faced by Kelly at Tuesday’s hearing.

Gen. Kelly received three gushing introductions from Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Tom Carper of Delaware as well as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Nearly every Senator that pressed the nominee offered him some praise.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota, said the Senate committee had hit the “cabinet lottery,” given Kelly’s experience and openness to answering questions. Early in the hearing, Ranking Member Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri lauded Gen. Kelly for testifying to his willingness to “speak truth to power.”

“That was music to my ears,” she said, adding that she anticipates he will have a “responsibility to speak truth to the next commander-in-chief.”

During the hearing Kelly also denounced torture and accepted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered with the 2016 election via a cyber hack. The nominee did however take a hardline stance on stemming illegal immigration in an effort to combat the flow of drugs like heroin and other opioids into the U.S. He also warned that the U.S. could suffer a “seriously catastrophic cyber event” and spoke out against sanctuary city policies.

“I think as a public servant I don’t think I have the authority to pick and choose what laws need to be followed. I think it’s in a lot of ways dangerous,” said Kelly. “I understand maybe the perspective of some of the local leaders, but I do think the law is the law and I think the law has to be followed.”

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