Adding to the list of retired generals that appear poised to serve in key Cabinet and other positions within his administration, President-elect Donald Trump has selected retired Marine General John Kelly to serve as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Some Congressional Democrats, and even members of both parties within the private sector and think tank set, are ringing the alarm bell in response to Trump’s selection of a third general to serve in a prominent role in his Administration. In addition to Kelly and General James Mattis, whom the president-elect has nominated to serve as Secretary of Defense, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn is set to serve as National Security Advisor.
Historically speaking, we need only to travel back to President Obama’s first term for confirmation that Trump’s selections aren’t rare. At the outset of his Presidency, Obama’s team of leading advisors included two general officers and one flag officer:
• General Jim Jones, National Security Advisor
• General Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs
• Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence
In keeping with the subject of the president-elect’s retired general nominees, in what can only be described as a major victory for Mattis and his supporters, the former CENTCOM Commander received an early Christmas gift from Congressional Republicans in the form of legislative language fast-tracking his confirmation process in January 2017.
General John Kelly
General Kelly is the former Commander of US Southern Command, which oversees US military operations and activities throughout Central and South America. This command experience required him to interface with Department of Homeland Security leadership regularly and afforded him a unique understanding of the people, policies, and processes involved in facilitating and countering the trafficking of drugs and other contraband, and humans, across the US-Mexican border. Like the President-elect, General Kelly is an outspoken proponent of securing the southern border. He has referred to the flow of drugs, weapons, and undocumented immigrants across the US-Mexican border as existential threats to US national security. In appearing before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in 2014, Kelly emphasized that US border security operations are underfunded and warned of a burgeoning “crime-terror convergence” that poses a dire threat to US domestic security.
Like his fellow Marine General Mattis, Kelly served for over 40 years and is blunt-talking, sharp, and widely respected by service members across the Armed Forces and Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. A South Boston native, he has shared that he has lost many childhood friends to drug addiction.
Kelly has also commanded Marines in Iraq in the War on Terror and is the highest-ranking member of the US Armed Services to have lost a child in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. One of his sons, a Marine Lieutenant, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010. Thus, Kelly has a unique perspective regarding the threat posed by extremists intent on committing terrorist acts in the US.
Key Senate Republicans, including Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ), have applauded Kelly’s nomination. Leading Senate Democratic homeland security policymakers have privately expressed their support for the selection as well, elaborating that they prefer not to publicize their sentiments out of a fear of jeopardizing his confirmation. This broad support on Capitol Hill from Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the Senate puts General Kelly on a glide path to a smooth confirmation process in early 2017.
Fast-Track for General Mattis
It now appears that General Mattis will enjoy a less complicated confirmation process than first expected in the immediate aftermath of his nomination. To uphold one of the cornerstone principles of the US democratic republic – civilian control of the military – by law, former military officers cannot serve as Secretary of Defense within seven years of retirement without a Congressional waiver. Following President-elect Trump’s selection of General Mattis to serve as Secretary of Defense, Congressional Democrats, including Senate Armed Services Committee member Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), expressed respect for Mattis’ service but opposition to the Congressional waiver he will require to be confirmed. Predicting that Democratic opposition to the Mattis waiver was not robust enough to lead Democrats to risk a government shutdown, in one of their last acts of the 114th Congress, Congressional Republicans inserted language into a must-pass bill to fund the federal government that will streamline Mattis’ confirmation process.
The language, which is limited to “the first person appointed as Secretary of Defense” after the date of enactment of the federal government funding bill, and thus, limited to Mattis, reduces the number of years in the existing statutory prohibition against military officers serving as Secretary of Defense after retirement from seven to three to correspond to Mattis’ retirement date. Additionally, the language includes numerous fast-track mechanisms for Mattis’ confirmation, including expedited consideration by the Senate Armed Services Committee, elimination of the potential for procedural delays to attempt to postpone the Senate’s consideration of the confirmation, and a limitation on debate on the Senate floor to 10 hours. To appease Democrats, Republicans included a requirement that General Mattis must receive 60 votes to be confirmed, as opposed to a simple majority of 51.
Nevertheless, inclusion of this language in an unrelated, must-pass bill during the waning hours of the final session of the 114th Congress is an early Christmas gift for Mattis and his supporters, and all but ensures a smoother confirmation process for Mattis than originally anticipated.