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President-elect Trump’s selection of retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly to lead the Department of Homeland Security is earning praise from the leaders of a key group of House conservatives.

“He gets very high marks, from my perspective, having met with him personally in his previous life,” said North Carolina Rep. Mark Meadows, the newly-elected chairman of the House Freedom Caucus who instigated the final round of fighting that led to then-Speaker John Boehner’s ouster in 2015.

Kelly, who spent years mulling the social and national security problems that arise south of the border as the top U.S. general in South America, has the credibility of a military leader and a border hawk. Not every member of the House Freedom Caucus can vouch for him, but the ones who have military or foreign policy experience in addition to their conservative bona fides were singing his praises.

“Gen. Kelly possesses a keen understanding of national security and counterterrorism issues and, as the former Commander of U.S. Southern Command, has virtually unrivaled experience in dealing with some of the key issues — such as border security and drug trafficking — that the next DHS Secretary will need to confront,” Florida Rep. Ron DeSantis, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and founding member of the HFC, said Wednesday. “Naming someone of John Kelly’s stature and integrity to lead the troubled agency is a giant first step towards securing our borders and improving the defense of our homeland.”



Kelly was one of three leading candidates for the job, alongside Missouri Secretary of State Kris Kobach and House Homeland Security Committee chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas. McCaul’s candidacy was undermined by Trump supporters skeptical of his border security credentials. Kobach, on the other hand, would have been destined for a confirmation fight over his support for a federal database of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries plagued by significant jihadist movements.

Kelly represents a balance between the two other candidates. He has criticized some of Trump’s more dramatic policies — “No wall will work by itself,” the general told Foreign Policy in July — while also emphasizing the serious nature of the problems emanating from the countries that fell within his bailiwick as the head of U.S. Southern Command.

“In comparison to other global threats, the near collapse of societies in the hemisphere with the associated drug and [undocumented immigrant] flow are frequently viewed to be of low importance,” Kelly told Defense One. “Many argue these threats are not existential and do not challenge our national security. I disagree.”

The HFC was founded in the wake of President Obama’s 2014 executive orders on immigration and a failed coup attempt against then-House Speaker John Boehner, who had agreed to a year-end spending package that didn’t ban funding for the implementation of the president’s immigration policies. Trump’s selection of Kelly represents not only his first concrete move pertaining to the immigration platform that he campaigned on, but it’s an important gesture to the House lawmakers who made a career out of opposing GOP leadership.

“I know Gen. Kelly from SOCOM and there was not a more capable general that not only understood the role of Congress but understood his role, so he gets very high marks from my perspective,” Meadows, who also sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Examiner. “If Mike McCaul had to lose out in that position, Gen. Kelly is a good person to lose out to.”

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“[Outgoing HFC chairman Jim] Jordan’s thesis statement is, we do what the American people want us to do — for two years, that was pre-Trump. And so, now if you look at what just won the election, Trump appears to be doing what the American people, not the elites, he appears to be doing what the American people want to be done,” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., who joined the HFC after upsetting then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a GOP primary. “I just don’t want to anticipate problems that aren’t here yet.”

Meadows argued that the early returns suggest Trump is aligned with the conservative goals that animated the HFC at its founding.

“The priorities for Americans across the country, that has not changed,” he said. “They want to make sure that they’ve got a strong national security and job security, a strong border, those things need to happen and we’re going to push the leadership of our own party as much as we’d push the leadership of the opposing party to get that done.”

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