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Trump's nominee to lead Homeland Security sails through confirmation hearing

| Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017, 8:39 p.m.
Kirstjen Nielsen, nominee to be the next Secretary of the Homeland Security Department, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Nov. 8, 2017 in Washington.
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Kirstjen Nielsen, nominee to be the next Secretary of the Homeland Security Department, testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Nov. 8, 2017 in Washington.

WASHINGTON — President Trump's nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security cruised through her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday, easily fielding questions on an array of security issues while making no stumbles or gaffes.

Kirstjen Nielsen, 45, the White House deputy chief of staff, was challenged on several topics by Democratic members of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, but her hearing produced no controversies that might jeopardize a swift confirmation.

Handpicked for the job by John Kelly, Trump's chief of staff, Nielsen would be the first DHS secretary with previous experience working at the agency, a bureaucratic behemoth of 240,000 employees and a $40 billion annual budget.

Her familiarity with DHS's 22 sub-agencies, from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Customs and Border Protection, was not in doubt during the hearing, as she parried questions on airport security, extremist violence, immigration and how to stop opioids sent through the mail from China.

Asked if she would be capable of standing up to the White House, Nielsen told lawmakers she would not hesitate to challenge Trump if asked to do something "in violation of the law." When Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., sought her views on Trump's plans for a wall along the Mexico border, Nielsen echoed Kelly's assessment, telling the panel: "There is no need for a wall from sea to shining sea."

Hard-line conservatives, including author Ann Coulter, seized on those remarks and attacked Nielsen online, but she got mostly softballs from Republican senators Wednesday, many of whom addressed her as if she were already in charge of DHS.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., one of the Trump administration's fiercest critics, pressed Nielsen on her plans for immigration enforcement, asking her what she would do if Congress fails to legalize the nearly 700,000 "Dreamers" whose protections under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program will expire next year.

Nielsen told her if Congress failed to act, DACA recipients would not be an enforcement priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and said DHS would not use their personal information to track down and deport them.

Conservative proponents of tougher immigration policies expressed disappointment with Nielsen's response.

Some of the toughest questions Nielsen faced were from Sen. Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., who criticized Nielsen's lack of high-level management experience. "Why should we believe, as smart as you are, having never led organization of more than 100 people, that you are ready to take on a responsibility this large, now?"

Carper and other Democrats also bristled when Nielsen refused to say human activity was the primary cause of climate change. "I do think the climate is changing," Nielsen said, but she told the panel she needed to read more scientific papers on the topic.

Nielsen would replace the acting DHS secretary, Elaine Duke, who is well-liked by DHS staffers but whose resume is short on counterterrorism or law enforcement credentials. Trump has said he wants Duke to remain at DHS as Nielsen's deputy.

Nielsen served as Kelly's deputy when he was DHS secretary from January to July. Her nomination was viewed as further evidence of the former Marine Corps general's effort to bring a more disciplined, conventional management approach to the administration.

Kelly brought Nielsen into the same role at the White House, where some staffers grumbled about her personality and viewed her as a stern enforcer.

In introducing Nielsen as his DHS pick last month, Trump praised her "sterling reputation" as a seasoned public servant dedicated to national security, "not politics or ideology."

Nielsen, an attorney and cybersecurity expert, started her career crafting legislation and policy at the Transportation Security Administration, then served as a White House adviser for emergency preparedness and disaster management under President George W. Bush.

Nielsen had that job when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and told the panel she'd gained critical insights into emergency management from the federal government's widely criticized response to the deadly storm, particularly the importance of having supplies and FEMA contractors in place before disaster strikes.

Committee members are expected to vote Thursday on her nomination, and the White House is pushing for a full Senate vote as soon as possible.

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