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FILE PHOTO: White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) walks with Kirstjen Nielsen, the chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, U.S., before his departure with President Donald Trump to Yuma, Arizona, August 22, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas(reuters_tickers)
By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump was expected to nominate Kirstjen Nielsen, who as the top aide to his White House chief of staff has sought to instil order in Trump's team, to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, a White House official said on Wednesday.
If confirmed by the Senate, Nielsen would take the reins at a sprawling department with more than 240,000 employees that is responsible for U.S. border and airport security, immigration policy, disaster response, refugee admissions and other matters.
Nielsen, 45, is a cybersecurity expert with a considerable resume in homeland security that includes work at the department's Transportation Security Administration and on Republican former President George W. Bush's White House Homeland Security Council.
Nielsen was retired Marine Corps General John Kelly's chief of staff when he was secretary of Homeland Security during the opening months of Trump's presidency. Kelly brought her to the White House as his deputy when Trump named him chief of staff in July to replace Reince Priebus after only six months on the job.
The official announcement of her nomination could come as early as later on Wednesday, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The nomination requires Senate confirmation.
Nielsen's departure from the White House would mark the latest upheaval in Trump's White House team. She was responsible for carrying out some of Kelly's orders on who gets access to the president. As a result, she has irritated some White House officials who now have limited contact with Trump.
Kelly has sought to bring more order to the chaotic West Wing since replacing Priebus. Trump has welcomed the changes to some extent, although he has privately confided to friends that the limitations on access to the Oval Office sometimes go too far.
Putting Nielsen into the Homeland Security post will allow Trump and Kelly to keep a close eye on the department, but getting her out of the White House could permit some relaxing of Kelly's strictness.
Cyber security is one of the primary issues under the Homeland Security Department's sprawling portfolio. Nielsen previously worked at a cyber think tank at George Washington University, blocks from the White House, and is considered well-versed in some of the more technical missions at the department, such as sharing cyber threat information with the private sector.
The department was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States exposed cracks in the country's homeland security apparatus.
The appointment comes at a busy time for the department, with one of its agencies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, overseeing disaster relief in hurricane-hit Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida as well as wildfire-ravaged areas of California. The department also is responsible for U.S. border security.
The department is a major player in implementing Trump's aggressive stance toward deporting illegal immigrants, as well as vetting the lower number of refugees Trump has decided to allow into the United States.
"It seems like a low-drama pick. It's a little concerning that she seems to have little background in immigration security and policy, but those individual agencies are in good hands already, and there is a strong core of career managers," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favours more limits on immigration.
Politico first reported the appointment.
(Reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati, Dustin Volz and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by James Dalgleish)