Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly was pressed Tuesday at a Capitol Hill hearing for answers about how he would address the country’s most pressing security concerns, including heroin trafficking and border protection, in his quest to become the next Homeland Security secretary.
Kelly -- who remains the corps’ longest-serving, active-duty general -- fielded the questions during his Senate confirmation hearing as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to run the agency.
The 66-year-old Kelly said that heroin pouring in from Mexico and other problems along the U.S.-Mexico border begin “1,500 miles south,” in Central America, and that resolving them requires improving relationships with other countries.
“Physical barriers alone won’t do it,” he testified before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security. “We have to get after drug transporters. We need better partnerships.”
His call for forging and maintaining relations was a theme throughout the hearing, with Kelly and his supporters citing instances in his career in which he has relied on consensus building to succeed.
“I have led platoons and divisions,” Kelly said in his opening remarks. “I have held senior command positions in Iraq, served as the combatant commander of the U.S. Southern Command and … with our allies, across agencies and the private sector.
“These assignments … shared the common characteristics of working within and leading large, complex and diverse mission-focused organizations, while under great pressure to produce results.”
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, a fellow Naval Academy graduate, who introduced Kelly, each called him “supremely qualified” and adept at managing multiple agencies.
“I’m confident that he would do as well, as secretary of state,” Gates said.
Kelly, having testified numerous times on Capitol Hill, is widely respected among members of Congress and is largely expected to be confirmed by the GOP-led Senate as the Cabinet-level agency’s seventh secretary in its roughly 13-year existence.
However, he faced several tough questions Tuesday that he appeared to struggle to answer, including a request by Ohio GOP Sen. Robert Portman to name his top-three ideas to improve agency morale.
The agency, which has roughly 240,000 employees and 20 major offices, notoriously has low morale and problems recruiting and retaining top employees.
Lawmakers repeatedly asked Kelly about domestic terrorism and cybersecurity, which he acknowledged to be a complex and inter-connected problem that needs to be stopped in large part by “cracking the nut” on people getting self-radicalized on the Internet.
Perhaps the toughest questions were posed by newly-elected California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, who pressed Kelly on the Obama administration's immigration policy known as DACA, which allows deferred deportation for some illegal immigrants who entered the country as minors.
“I don’t know what the incoming administration is doing with that,” Kelly responded. “But I promise you, I will be involved in the process.”
However, he made clear his position about how he would deal with so-called sanctuary cities that don’t enforce U.S. immigration laws.
“The law is the law,” he said.