WASHINGTON — The outgoing homeland security secretary, Jeh Johnson, all but endorsed a possible successor Wednesday, speaking on a panel about future threats to the nation.
“I don’t know anybody who is stronger on border security in Congress,” Johnson said about Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, considered a leading candidate for his position in Donald Trump’s administration. But pressed for an outright endorsement, Johnson said: “I will not get into the business of publicly recommending to the president-elect who he should pick to be my successor.”
Speaking to an overflow crowd at the Bipartisan Policy Center, the two men shared strikingly similar objectives — highlighting a need to prioritize cybersecurity and combat threats of homegrown terrorism. McCaul, who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said he had a “good working relationship” with Johnson and respected his work — despite some areas of disagreement.
“We don’t always agree on everything — like on the immigration issue — but when it comes to cyber and counterterrorism there’s no party affiliation,” McCaul said in an interview.
During the event, McCaul backed “extreme vetting,” a term used by President-elect Donald Trump to include screening for immigrants who “share our values.” But he also criticized the president-elect’s previous call to ban an “entire race or religion” — McCaul’s words — citing “constitutional concerns.”
Over the past few weeks, McCaul has emerged as a leading candidate for secretary of homeland security — a sprawling, 240,000-employee department that oversees immigration enforcement, the U.S. Secret Service and the airport screeners of the TSA.
On Tuesday, McCaul met with Trump in New York City to discuss terror threats and the need for stronger border security. The Texas lawmaker, whose district stretches from Austin to the edge of Houston, called his conversation with the president-elect “very substantive” and said he looked forward to working with the new administration.
He elaborated on Wednesday: “We talked about a … physical barrier, primarily fencing. It would involve technologies — aviation assets, censor surveillance.”
That meeting at Trump Tower set off alarms for some conservative immigration groups, which see McCaul as a proponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants and weak on border security.
“The real reason DHS chief Jeh Johnson supports McCaul is because behind the tough talk, McCaul shares the same immigration reform amnesty positions as Johnson, Obama, and Clinton!” said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, in an email.
But McCaul called those criticisms “laughable,” and said “quite frankly I don’t know who they’re talking about.”
Throughout the election, McCaul advised Trump on national security issues — though the candidate didn’t always listen. After the first presidential debate, McCaul told Trump he believed Russia was behind attacks on the Democratic party, its nominee and the U.S. election. Trump was not convinced.
In the final debate, Trump insisted that “our country has no idea” who carried out the attacks despite widespread consensus among the U.S. intelligence community.
In Washington on Wednesday, McCaul declined to speculate on his chances — and the competition is steep.
The president-elect met Monday with two other potential candidates: Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke — a fiery surrogate for Trump and outspoken advocate for police officers — and Frances Townsend, a former homeland security adviser to President George W. Bush.