As Donald Trump makes waves with his controversial remarks toward Muslims, Jeh Johnson is going the opposite direction — crisscrossing the country on an outreach mission to Muslims in America that has led the Homeland Security chief to at least nine cities so far and will take him to Michigan, California and the Southeast next year.
In fact, the same day Trump’s call to ban Muslims from the United States engulfed the political world, Johnson happened to be visiting a mosque in Northern Virginia as part of his outreach campaign.
Though pressed by reporters, Johnson refused to comment on Trump’s provocative demand. But as the Homeland Security chief left the room, he heard one last question: “Aren’t you going to denounce Mr. Trump and his comments?”
“I took that home with me and didn’t sleep well all night,” Johnson recalled in a nearly hourlong interview with POLITICO at DHS headquarters this month. “The next morning — at my usual 5 a.m .— I woke up with it on my mind that I had to say something.”
As he closes his second year leading Homeland Security, Johnson is facing challenges on two fronts: How to leave the beleaguered agency better than he found it — with projects such as the one that led him to the mosque this month — while battling terror threats, unforeseen scandals and other whirs of the news cycle.
The 58-year-old Johnson, a gregarious lawyer and close confidant of President Barack Obama, is approaching the twilight of a career in public service that’s placed him in the middle of some of the biggest stories of the Obama administration. Many came during Johnson’s tenure as general counsel at the Pentagon, which included drafting the legal rationale for the use of armed drones and working on repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
Johnson is perhaps most intimately linked to Obama’s controversial executive actions on immigration, whose centerpiece — a sweeping new program that would effectively grant the perks of legalization to more than 4 million undocumented immigrants — is tangled in litigation spearheaded by GOP-led states. He’s so entrenched in the particulars of immigration law and executive power that Johnson wrote many of the 10 executive action memos himself.
Johnson acknowledged the shortcomings of his two years as secretary, including surveys that constantly rank DHS at the bottom in employee morale. He also points out the department’s achievements, such as changes to the nation’s visa waiver program meant to tighten screenings of foreigners traveling here, as well as improvements to aviation security.
“The nature of our work is, we’re on defense,” said Johnson, who comes to work at 6:15 every morning. “But there is a proactive aspect to it where you identify things that you need to strengthen, need to build and you continue to focus on those efforts while you’re on defense.”
Despite what Johnson called an “aggressive campaign” to improve employee satisfaction, he concedes: “It’s going to take time to turn it around.” He also has the unenviable task of untangling the various components that make up DHS, which was borne out of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and houses nearly two dozen government agencies. Earlier this year, Johnson launched a joint task force focusing on streamlining coordination among agencies responsible for what happens along the southern border. He said the effort is “functioning well.”
One of Johnson’s central missions has been bolstering engagement with Muslim communities across the nation. Part “homeland security imperative” and part “personal mission,” as he described it, the initiative has taken Johnson to cities from Boston to Los Angeles, and to the Northern Virginia mosque where the normally even-keeled official was confronted with questions about Trump’s rhetoric.
As a Cabinet official closely involved with national security, Johnson stays out of 2016 politics. But that question on whether Johnson would denounce Trump prompted the DHS chief to speak out, as he took to MSNBC a day after his mosque visit to condemn the GOP front-runner.
Johnson was critical again of Trump in the POLITICO interview, calling his plan to bar Muslims “beyond the pale.”
It “would burn bridges to American Muslims when we’re trying to go in the exact opposite direction,” he said.
During his tenure at Homeland Security, Johnson has tried to build bridges of his own, particularly toward congressional Republicans who have antagonized DHS yet remained friendly with its leader. The GOP-led Congress embarked on an ultimately futile attempt to defund Obama’s immigration actions that Johnson crafted — jeopardizing funding for his sprawling, 240,000-person agency.
He attends dinner with Democratic lawmakers and treks to the Capitol to meet privately with GOP committee leaders. After one feisty sparring session during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing last year, Johnson invited Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) for a beer. To the conservative lawmaker’s surprise, Johnson followed up with an invitation for a drink at a Pennsylvania Avenue bar.
“I think he’s an immensely personable guy,” Sanford said recently. “I think the ultimate litmus test for a president is, would you like to go for a beer with him? I’d like to go drink a beer with Jeh Johnson, and I have.”
“Just in terms of being responsive, being open, being cooperative, I give him a very high mark,” added Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
But Jeh Johnson has also faced his share of public criticism, including over repeated scandals plaguing the Secret Service.
Earlier this year, news reports and an inspector general probe found that officials at the embattled agency had improperly accessed confidential information about House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, a vocal critic of the Secret Service. It prompted Johnson to apologize personally — twice. More recently, Chaffetz’s panel released a bipartisan report that detailed significant security lapses by the Secret Service and staffing woes that are hampering the agency.
“I think Secretary Johnson’s going to have to take more of this on his shoulders,” Chaffetz said, who plans to call Johnson before his committee next year. “I don’t know why he gets a free pass. We’ve had a number of serious mishaps throughout his agency.”
Immigration has been another flash point between Johnson and Republicans — and sometimes, even otherwise friendly advocates.
Though the signature initiative of Obama’s executive actions is tied up in the courts, Johnson takes great pains to point out that nine out of the 10 immigration initiatives announced in November 2014 are proceeding. Particularly noteworthy are the new guidelines that sharpen the focus of the administration’s deportation efforts on criminal immigrants and those who recently crossed the border illegally. The new policy means nearly 90 percent of undocumented immigrants currently in the United States will likely be shielded from being deported, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington that is trusted by Johnson and his aides.
DHS announced Tuesday that federal immigration officials deported 235,413 immigrants from October 2014 to September 2015 — the lowest figure in at least eight years.
“We’ve written those guidelines, cleared the focus more on threats to public safety, more quality to our efforts, less of simply the low-hanging fruit, for the good of public safety,” Johnson said. “At the same time, we’re making immigration enforcement less of a pariah in big cities.”
But a remaining sore point for some immigration advocates is the new Priority Enforcement Program, an enforcement initiative that replaced the controversial Secure Communities. The old program called on local jails to detain certain immigrants so immigration officials had time to pick them up and deport them, a practice that had raised significant legal and constitutional concerns and led many cities and counties to stop cooperating with the feds. The new program now asks local jails to merely notify immigration officials.
Of the 29 cities and counties that had refused to cooperate with immigration enforcement in recent years, 16 — including Philadelphia, which joined the new program on Tuesday — have now pledged to work with federal officials again. But for many immigration advocates, the new program isn’t a fix.
“There were really enormous failings and what I would call incredible breaches of trust as a result of” Secure Communities, said Avideh Moussavian, economic justice policy attorney for the National Immigration Law Center. “Unfortunately, a lot of the problems that were the legacy under [the old program] continue to exist.”
Johnson dismisses such criticism, calling the two efforts “fundamentally different.”
“We do away with detainers, and we resolved the legal concerns that were arising in litigation,” Johnson said. “Local law enforcement were losing these cases because they were holding individuals longer than they would’ve otherwise done so to give immigration enforcement enough time to come get them.”
As for a future in yet another presidential administration, Johnson — who also served as Air Force general counsel under President Bill Clinton — says no. By this time next year, Johnson will have spent 10 years at Obama’s side — starting in November 2006, when the then-Illinois senator asked Johnson to remain neutral in the Democratic presidential primary. Since then, Johnson has been a consummate Obama loyalist, serving on his presidential campaign and transition team before being confirmed as the Pentagon general counsel and now, at the helm of DHS.
“It’s time to turn the page. Really. It’ll really be time to turn the page,” Johnson said of his plans after Obama leaves the White House. “It’s been a remarkable time, and I hope I’ve made a difference.”
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