Share story

WASHINGTON — When Jeh Johnson, President Obama’s pick to run the Department of Homeland Security, moved to Washington to be the top lawyer at the Pentagon in 2009, he launched a charm offensive.

He hosted regular dinners with former Bush administration lawyers and Republican congressional staff.

Some were held at an expensive organic restaurant called Nora in downtown D.C., recalls John Bellinger III, who served as legal adviser for the State Department and the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration.

“He was a good listener,” Bellinger said, adding that Johnson — whose first name is pronounced “Jay” — was an important voice in maintaining continuity in military and counterterrorism policy from the Bush years to Obama’s administration.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“He knew that it’s good to have friends on both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Johnson, whose nomination was announced by Obama on Friday, will need that political touch if he is confirmed to manage one of the largest, most besieged departments in the federal government.

Homeland security has struggled to streamline how it shares information on domestic terrorism threats, and helps protect critical American businesses from cyberattacks.

Johnson will be under pressure from immigration advocates to slow the rate of deportations, which have increased every year Obama has been in office. Unions representing immigration officers are in open revolt over the Obama administration’s orders that agents focus on removing immigrants with criminal records before others.

Though the job requires a deft understanding of how to prevent terrorists from launching attacks inside the U.S., Johnson also will be front and center in helping Obama achieve one of his top goals for his second term: persuading Congress to overhaul the country’s immigration system.

Johnson, 56, has been in the White House situation room “in moments of decision,” and has a “deep understanding of the threats and challenges facing the United States,” Obama said at a news conference.

At the same time, Obama said, Johnson knows “that keeping America safe requires us also upholding the values and civil liberties that make America great.”

Johnson was raised in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. He completed his undergraduate studies at Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, and graduated from Columbia Law School.

In his 30s, Johnson was made a partner in the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Johnson left the firm to work in public service several times, including trying corruption cases as a federal prosecutor in New York and later, during the Clinton administration, working as general counsel to the Air Force.

In 2008, he was an early fundraiser and adviser to Obama’s presidential campaign. If confirmed by the Senate he would be the fourth homeland-security secretary and the first African American to serve in the post.

Republicans are questioning whether he has the experience needed to take the reins of an agency with 240,000 employees or whether he was simply chosen because he is a friend of the president’s.

Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama said Johnson will have to demonstrate to the Senate a “commitment to achieving management control of this sprawling department and its law-enforcement duties.”

Johnson would replace Janet Napolitano, who resigned in September to run the University of California system.

As the former governor of Arizona, Napolitano came to Washington with strong border-security credentials and practiced political instincts.

Johnson doesn’t have a long public record on immigration, which could blunt objections to his nomination from opponents of the White House’s immigration policy.

Because he helped to establish the legal framework for lethal drone strokes, his nomination could step up the pressure on the Obama administration to reveal more about those secret operations.

Former Bush administration officials praised Johnson for pushing to keep in place the military-commissions court system for trying terrorists established after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Some of the reforms to the commissions under Obama’s watch were designed by Johnson, including limiting the use of hearsay evidence.

While at the Pentagon, Johnson helped lead a high-level working group that advised Obama that repealing the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy would pose little risk to the effectiveness of the force. He has described this work to friends as one of his proudest moments in public service.

At the White House news conference Friday, Johnson told Obama that he would do his best to keep Americans safe even though he “was not looking for this opportunity” and was settling back into private life when it came along.

He recalled being in New York City on the day two jetliners rammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

“I wandered the streets of New York that day and wondered, ‘What can I do?’ ” Johnson said.

“Since then I have tried to devote myself to answering that question.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.