President Obama on Friday nominated former top Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson to be the next Homeland Security secretary, calling him a “critical member” of his national security team.
Obama said Johnson had “demonstrated again and again ... a deep understanding of the threats facing the United States,” during the Rose Garden event, where he made the announcement.
Johnson served as the Defense Department’s general counsel for much of the president’s first term before returning to private practice.
At the Pentagon, he played a role in key policy decisions, including the expansion of the administration’s overseas drone strikes, rules governing the use of military commissions at Guantanamo Bay and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Johnson authored the report calling for the administration to remove the policy preventing openly gay servicemembers.
Obama praised Johnson’s work at the Pentagon and said he had “been in the situation room, at the table, at moments of decision.”
“He’s respected across our government as a team player,” the president continued, adding that Johnson had “earned a reputation as a cool and calm leader.”
“I urge the Senate to confirm Jeh as soon as possible,” said Obama.
Johnson can expect to face tough questions at his confirmation hearings over his role approving the use of drone strikes to target individuals abroad, including American citizens.
An administration official on Thursday, announcing Obama’s decision to tap Johnson, said that the former Pentagon lawyer was “responsible for the prior legal review and approval of every military operation approved by the President and Secretary of Defense.”
The administration official called Johnson “one the most highly qualified and respected national security leaders,” adding that he was “known for his sound judgment and counsel.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Johnson would face a number of new challenges at the Department of Homeland Security, which has faced scrutiny from lawmakers over a host of issues, from border security, to its efforts to fight terrorism and over the Transportation Security Administration’s airport screening practices.
As secretary, he would also play a key role in enforcing changes to the nation’s immigration laws.
Obama has said immigration reform will be a key second term priority, but his push has faced opposition from conservative House Republicans who say the administration is not doing enough to secure the border.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., praised Johnson's selection.
"President Obama has selected an outstanding public servant with significant experience in protecting our nation and supporting the work of law enforcement," Hoyer said in a statement. "He is someone our nation’s first responders can rely on to make sure they have the resources and guidance they need to safeguard our communities and respond quickly and effectively in the event of an emergency."
Republicans, though, said the nomination should bring scrutiny to problems at the department.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., in a statement Thursday said that Johnson's nomination "should focus the attention of the Congress and the country on the open refusal of DHS political appointees to impartially execute their law enforcement mission."
Sessions said that under Napolitano, violent criminals were released from custody and immigration officers were "blocked from doing their jobs."
In brief remarks, Johnson called the nomination a "tremendous honor” and spoke of his experiences in New York City during the 9/11 terror attacks, which fell on his birthday.
“I promise all of my energy, focus ability to the task of safeguarding our nation’s homeland security,” said Johnson.
Johnson would succeed Napolitano, who left the post to become president of the University of California system.
Obama also praised Napolitano and her immediate successor acting Secretary Rand Beers.
He said he was “enormously grateful” for Napolitano’s service and joked that she would do an “outstanding job” in her “new position in sunny California.”
New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was also viewed as a possible pick, with Obama praising him earlier this year as “very well qualified” for the post.
Brian Hughes contributed to this report.