WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday introduced his choice to lead the Department of Homeland Security, a former staffer at the sprawling post-9/11 federal agency who he says will need “no on-the-job training” for the lead role.
Trump also called on Congress to “put politics aside” and confirm deputy White House chief of staff Kirstjen Nielsen by a “strong, bipartisan vote.”
But even before Trump had formally announced Nielsen’s appointment during an East Room ceremony attended by much of the Cabinet and senior members of the White House staff, at least one congressional Democrat said her role during Hurricane Katrina should be scrutinized.
The Senate must confirm Nielsen’s nomination.
“There will be no on-the-job training for Kirsten. She is ready on Day One,” Trump said, essentially declaring her fit to begin serving, if not for the Senate. Elaine Duke has led the department in an acting capacity through recent destructive hurricanes in Florida, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“In light of the serious threats facing our country, and the urgent disaster recovery efforts, I call upon the Senate to put politics aside and confirm this tremendously qualified and talented nominee with a strong bipartisan vote,” Trump said.
Nielsen told the president she was “humbled by the trust you are placing in me.” She stands to become the sixth secretary of the department, which was created after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Nielsen had been chief of staff to John Kelly when he was Trump’s first homeland security secretary. Kelly brought her to the White House after Trump named him chief of staff in late July, and Trump quickly tapped Nielsen to be Kelly’s deputy.
An expert in homeland security and national security policy, Nielsen previously served as a special assistant to President George W. Bush and worked for the Transportation Security Administration. She’s also the first nominee to have worked for the department, the White House said.
In a nod to the critical role that Homeland Security has played during the government’s response to the recent hurricanes, Nielsen pledged Thursday that the agency will “remain engaged” in storm recovery efforts for the long term.
Her commitment came hours after Trump had questioned the government’s presence in Puerto Rico, tweeting that “we cannot keep” federal emergency management and military workers in “P.R. forever!” Trump has touted his administration’s response to a season of devastating storms, but critics have questioned the pace of support in Puerto Rico, which remains largely without electricity more than three weeks after taking a blow from Hurricane Maria.
Nielsen’s own involvement in hurricane planning and response came under harsh scrutiny a decade ago during congressional examinations of the Bush administration’s performance after Hurricane Katrina struck southern Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005. Nielsen at the time was a key Bush administration official in the chain of command, working as senior director for preparedness and response with the White House’s Homeland Security Council.
Reports issued two years later by the Senate and the House were highly critical of the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina. The reports did not specifically impugn Nielsen’s performance, but both faulted the council for failing to take the lead in staying on top of the unfolding disaster.
At least one Democratic congressman said the Senate should scrutinize Nielsen’s role during Katrina.
“I am very concerned about her past work in the Bush administration during its botched response to Hurricane Katrina,” said Rep. Bennie G. Thompson, D-Miss. Thompson said he worried that the Trump administration “has not learned all the lessons from that tragedy, given what we are seeing in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.”
Nielsen was replaced in the Bush White House in 2007 by Thomas Bossert, now Trump’s homeland security adviser.
In recent years, she headed a private consulting firm, Sunesis Consulting Group, which was awarded more than $900,000 in government contracts since 2008, including more than $600,000 from the Homeland Security Department, federal contracting documents show.
She was general counsel at Civitas Group LLC, another consulting group that worked with Homeland Security, the Justice Department and the General Services Administration. The firm earned more than $3.4 million in government contracts between 2008 and 2013, according to federal records.
Associated Press writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.