War Stories

Does Trump Want to Put Generals in Charge of Everything?

And does John Kelly have what it takes to run a bloated bureaucracy like the Department of Homeland Security?

US Southern Command commander General John F. Kelly speaks during a press conference on July 30, 2014 at the National Defense Ministry in Asuncion.

Gen. John Kelly, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security, speaks during a press conference in 2014.

Norberto Duarte/Getty Images

This is getting to be a bit much. After President-elect Donald Trump chose retired generals to be his national security adviser and his secretary of defense (the latter requiring a special waiver from Congress, granted only once before, in 1950), I figured that David Petraeus was probably out of the running for secretary of state; even Trump might not want to stack his Cabinet with too many stars and bars. But now that he’s picked John Kelly—another retired general, this one, like James Mattis, a marine—to be secretary of homeland security, I’m thinking maybe he wants to put generals in charge of everything.*

A big question about these appointments—besides the larger one concerning civilian control not just of our military but of our government—is whether these generals have what it takes to run a large federal bureaucracy. The Department of Homeland Security isn’t just a large bureaucracy, with 240,000 employees and a $41.2 billion budget (the third-largest federal department, after Defense and Veterans Affairs)—it’s a hodgepodge of entities, slammed together in one of the most thoughtless reorganizations in recent history.

The department was the brainchild of Joseph Lieberman, then a Democratic senator from Connecticut, who, after the 9/11 attacks, put forth the view that every federal agency having anything to do with securing the homeland—22 agencies, once under the rubric of eight separate Cabinet departments—should be corralled into one big tent. You’ve got immigration, Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration, the Secret Service, and national cybersecurity, among others. The problem, as it’s turned out, is that the secretary of this omnibus department can focus on just two or three of its two-dozen functions, meaning that the other functions are relegated to assistant or deputy assistant (or assistant to the deputy assistant) secretaries, meaning that they get lost in the shuffle and never get any face time with the president.

It’s probably impossible for any one person to run the Department of Homeland Security.

That said, Trump could have done worse than to appoint John Kelly. As senior military assistant to Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Kelly struck several who worked with him as intelligent, disciplined, and an all-around good guy. His letters of condolence to Gold Star families, especially after he lost his own son to a landmine in Afghanistan, have been passed around by their recipients as testimonials to his own deep and eloquent compassion. More pertinent, his service as commander of Southern Command—which controls U.S. military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean—gave him expertise in issues of border control.

But there’s another commander of Southern Command who can lend military advice on border control—and a commander of Northern Command who can do the same on broader issues of homeland security. Does Kelly have the staff experience to run a gigantic bureaucracy such as DHS, or is Trump just going to get two sources of military advice? One might argue that Kelly’s military sensibility might knock some discipline and rigor into this ramshackle department, and maybe it will—but the department might be too ramshackle, too resistant to rigor, for it to matter.

If Trump really wants to “drain the swamp,” DHS might be one plug to pull. Split it up into three or four coherent departments, each with a Cabinet secretary (or deputy secretary) who could give their missions the attention they require. John Kelly might be just the right guy to do that.

*Correction, Dec. 7, 2016: This piece originally misidentified John Kelly as John Allen. (Return.)