Retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, a proponent of tighter border controls and a favorite of Congress for his unscripted candor, has emerged as the top choice of President-elect Donald Trump for the cabinet post of Homeland Security secretary.
There was no immediate official confirmation of Kelly's pick from the Trump transition team, but several news outlets, including CBS and The New York Times, said the president-elect would name Kelly to the post next week -- along with his choice for secretary of state and other positions. CBS reported that Kelly had accepted the offer.
As head of the Homeland Security Department, the 66-year-old Kelly would head the government's third-largest department with a workforce of 220,000 and a wide range of responsibilities from airport security and border protection to disaster relief and guarding the president.
Kelly's authority would extend over the Coast Guard, the Secret Service, the Transportation Security Agency, Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
The nomination of Kelly, who retired last year as head of U.S. Southern Command, would not require a waiver from Congress as would Trump's choice of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as Defense secretary. The law against retired military officers accepting top positions until seven years after retirement only applies to the Pentagon post.
If Kelly and Mattis were to be confirmed by the Senate, that would put three Marines in top security and defense posts for the Trump administration.
Current Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, a close friend of Kelly's and another Marine from the Boston area, served with Kelly in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Dunford also served as a regimental commander under Mattis in the 1st Marine Division.
Kelly is what Marines call a "Mustang," an officer who came from the enlisted ranks. He joined the Marines in 1970 and was discharged from active duty in 1972 as a sergeant. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts in 1976, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant through Officer Candidate's School.
His progression through the ranks gave Kelly the distinction of emulating a Marine Corps legend, the late Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller. As a colonel and assistant commander for the 1st Marine Division in Iraq in 2003, Kelly was promoted to brigadier general. It was the first known promotion of a Marine colonel serving in a combat zone since Puller.
In his long career, Kelly, much like Mattis, became a favorite of the press for speaking plainly, and colorfully. A Kelly quote became legend when his troops were poised outside Baghdad in 2003 and he was asked if it would be difficult to take the city. "Hell, these are Marines," Kelly said. "Baghdad ain't s---."
Kelly is also the highest-ranking officer to have lost a son in combat since the 9/11 terror attacks. In 2010, Marine 1st Lt. Robert Michael Kelly was killed in action in the Sangin district of Afghanistan's Helmand province.
Trump aides told The New York Times that the death of Kelly's son had a role in influencing his choice of the retired general for the Homeland post. The aides said Trump wanted individuals in security positions who understood on a personal level what it meant to send troops into combat.
As head of U.S. Southern Command, Kelly sought to expand military and humanitarian contacts in Latin America. He also constantly pleaded with the higher command for more Navy and Coast Guard assets to interdict the drug trade at sea.
Kelly also had command over the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, detention facility and came under criticism from human rights groups over the forced feeding of prisoners who went on hunger strikes.
Kelly was in line with Trump on keeping "Gitmo" open. In one of his free-wheeling news conferences at the Pentagon last January, Kelly said that the detainees at Guantanamo were "all bad boys. We have dossiers on all of them. Some of them were more effective in being bad boys than others."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.