UPDATED: What Jeh Johnson’s nomination means for DHS

(This story was updated Oct. 18 at 2:40 p.m. to include details on the official nomination)

Jeh Johnson is an unlikely choice to be the next Homeland Security Department secretary.

He’s a criminal and civil trial attorney and served as an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, where he prosecuted public corruption cases. He spent almost four years as the Defense Department’s general counsel and more than two years as the Air Force’s lead lawyer. And, according to his DoD bio, he has no discernible homeland security background.

But that seems to be the trend for the White House as of late.

President Barack Obama officially nominated Johnson Friday to replace Janet Napolitano as the top official at DHS.

Napolitano stepped down in September after more than four years on the job. She is now the president of the University of California.

Jeh Johnson

“Having served in the Department of Defense, Mr. Johnson is well-acquainted with the needs of a large and diverse department. I look forward to working with him to improve the effectiveness of DHS’ programs and operations, as well as employee morale,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), ranking member of the Homeland Security Committee, in a statement. “His experience in counterterrorism and cybersecurity will be an asset to the nation. The Department of Homeland Security has been without a permanent leader for far too long. In light of these circumstances and Mr. Johnson’s qualifications, I urge the Senate to take swift action to confirm him.”

The president, especially as of late, is bringing senior officials into government without necessarily a lot of experience in the position or agency. For example, Obama nominated Beth Cobert to the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget despite having never served in government. He also appointed Avril Haines in August to be the deputy director of the CIA despite having never served in the intelligence community.

But Johnson’s lack of experience with the homeland security sector doesn’t mean he can’t be a good manager, which is what the department needs more than ever, according to lawmakers.

Other lawmakers joined Thompson in praising Obama’s decision to finally nominate a new DHS secretary.

“[I] look forward to hearing Mr. Johnson’s vision for improving the department’s operations, morale and creating a more unified agency. In order for DHS to carry out its core mission of protecting the American people, from our border and cybersecurity to the growing threat of terrorism, the department needs a strong leader with a commitment to enforcing the law,” said Rep. Mike McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, in a statement. “Even with this prospective nominee, over 40 percent of senior leadership positions at DHS are either vacant or have an ‘acting’ placeholder. The lack of leadership at the White House is reflected in the holes in leadership at the department, and these important positions must be filled in order to fill the holes in our homeland security.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a statement that because of the lack of permanent leadership at DHS, Johnson’s nomination comes at a critical time.

“Mr. Johnson brings a wealth of experience from the Department of Defense, and I am eager to meet with him and discuss his vision for the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. “I look forward to working with my colleagues on the committee to consider his nomination in a thorough and timely manner.”

Alejandro Mayorkas, the White House’s nominee to be deputy secretary at DHS, is under fire in the Senate because of allegations that he used his position to influence a decision regarding a company run by the brother of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mayorkas denied exercising any undue influence.

Rand Beers is serving as the acting secretary and Rafael Borras is the acting deputy secretary.


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