AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Multiple news outlets are reporting that President-elect Donald Trump will nominate retired General John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly would be the latest in a string of military officers that Trump wants on his White House team. DHS enforces immigration and border security laws, topics that were central to Trump's campaign platform. He promised to build a wall along the southern border, restrict Muslims from traveling to the U.S. and possibly deport many undocumented people.
Now joining us to talk more about Kelly's background and whether he and Trump can make good on these pledges is NPR's John Burnett. And John, give us more detail about General Kelly.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: General John Kelly is a retired four-star Marine general. He's 66 years old. He grew up in a working-class Boston neighborhood. You can hear it in his accent. And notably, his son Lieutenant Robert Kelly was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010.
John Kelly has a 45-year career in the military. Most recently he was in charge of the U.S. Southern Command in South Florida. It's responsible for 32 countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean. And so he has been deeply concerned about the integrity of the land and sea borders of the U.S. and specifically preventing drugs and terrorists from getting into the United States.
Along those lines, I wanted to play a cut from General Kelly here giving his last press conference at the Pentagon last January.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
JOHN KELLY: It seems like the Islamic extremists and terrorists have shifted a lot of their message, and that is, hey, rather than come here to Syria, why don't you just stay at home and do San Bernardino or do Boston or do Fort Hood? And my concern as the SOUTHCOM commander is even just a few of these, you know, nuts can cause an awful lot of trouble down in the Caribbean because they don't have an FBI. They don't have law enforcement like we do.
BURNETT: Even though he's a career military man, Kelly has been thinking about protecting the homeland, which of course will be his job as secretary of Homeland Security.
CORNISH: Talk about his qualifications when it comes to leading an agency like DHS.
BURNETT: Well, General Kelly has direct experience at SOUTHCOM in interdicting drugs in the Caribbean and Latin America. He's worked with Colombia and Peru in their counternarcotics strategy. But he moves to a civilian agency - a giant one, in fact. DHS is the third-largest Cabinet department, nearly a quarter of a million employees. It's got everything in it from the Border Patrol, the Secret Service, U.S. Coast Guard to FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. So it's this huge diversity of missions.
And interestingly, three of the best-known secretaries of DHS before him were lawyers - Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano and the current one, Jeh Johnson. Kelly is a warfighter. He led the Marines in Iraq, and he's been, as he says, in the fight.
CORNISH: And I understand, John, that you personally have some knowledge of General Kelly in a conflict zone, right?
BURNETT: It's true. He was the chief of staff of the 1st Marine Division when I was an embedded reporter in the Headquarters Battalion for about five weeks in Iraq back in 2003. He was our briefer on the march to Baghdad.
Most days, we heard from him - total straight shooter, very solid, plainspoken, seems to like the press, wanted to tell us what he could, humble and not a showboat. And the half dozen reporters I was embedded with - we liked him very much, Audie.
CORNISH: Do we have a sense of how John Kelly might handle some of Trump's campaign pledges - you know, boosting security on the southern border or deporting criminal non-citizens?
BURNETT: Well, he's definitely a hardliner. As SOUTHCOM commander, Kelly was opposed to closing the Guantanamo military prison. The hawkish immigration groups are already speaking out for him, saying, you know, his military experience would be a clear asset. One Democrat on the Homeland Security Committee released a statement hoping that he avoids the extreme rhetoric on immigration that we heard from the president-elect.
You know, with so many Republicans in Congress calling for militarizing the border, for more federal agents and more miles of wall and more drones and cameras, Kelly should be able to sail through the confirmation process.
CORNISH: That's NPR's John Burnett. Thank you.
BURNETT: It's a pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.