Did Immigration Kill Jeh Johnson's Chances of Becoming Secretary of Defense?

Jeh Johnson's name keeps coming up as a possibility to run the Pentagon. Will the GOP view his immigration work as disqualifying?

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Jeh Johnson's testimony Tuesday on Capitol Hill in a hearing on immigration policy will be closely watched by anyone trying to guess who President Barack Obama will name as his next defense secretary.

While Ash Carter is seen as Obama's likeliest and safest choice since Michele Flournoy took herself out of the running, Johnson, the Homeland Security Secretary and former Pentagon general counsel, holds a lot of personal appeal for Obama: he's an administration insider who also has the potential, as a black nominee, to burnish Obama's legacy of Cabinet diversity. 

Inside the White House, Johnson is trusted—and well liked—by the president and his top aides, qualities that carry serious weight in this administration. Both attributes were bolstered even further by Johnson's behind-the-scenes efforts on immigration, during which he took the lead in developing the president's recently announced plan to provide relief to millions of undocumented residents. 

In a 2013 piece on Johnson for Daily Beast, Daniel Klaidman further examined the presidential relationship. 

"Johnson has earned Obama's personal and political loyalty," Kaidman wrote. "He was one of Obama's earliest supporters after the then-senator from Illinois decided to run for president. Johnson held fundraisers for him and trudged through the snows of Iowa and West Philadelphia knocking on doors for the candidate. A fundraiser at his suburban New Jersey home was highly valued by the Obama campaign since, at the time, Hillary Clinton and her family's machine dominated political fundraising in the New York area." 

Johnson's time at the Pentagon is a clear plus. Administration officials have hinted that Obama's pick won't stray too far into new blood and that operational knowledge of the building is considered a necessity. Johnson has that in spades (though Carter does as well, as laid out in this intensive Foreign Affairs piece from the beginning of this year). Johnson was a central player in two of the toughest policy debates inside the administration in Obama's first term: drone policy and detainee issues at Guantanamo Bay. His work on those issues is looked upon positively, even by those who found themselves on the opposite side of the debate, according to people involved. 

Twenty-three Republican senators thought enough of Johnson's extensive time in government and qualifications to vote to confirm him in 2013 for the homeland security gig (which, it should be noted, is universally considered one of the worst jobs in town given its wide-ranging and politically divisive responsibilities. Senator John McCain called it "one of the toughest, most thankless jobs in Washington.") Should Johnson rise to the top of Obama's list to replace the departing Chuck Hagel, Tuesday's hearing may be a good indicator of whether that kind of support will ever exist within the Republican Party again.

Johnson will be appearing on Capitol Hill as a witness in a Republican-led House hearing on the "impact of presidential amnesty on border security." Johnson's role in crafting the final actions Obama took to unilaterally grant a temporary reprieve from deportation to up five million undocumented immigrants is certain to face angry and pointed questions from lawmakers who are still fuming over the White House action. 

 

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