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Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly Faces Senate For DHS Confirmation Hearing

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump's choice to head the Department of Homeland Security has had a friendly reception from senators today during his confirmation hearing. Retired Marine General John Kelly would be the first non-civilian to head the sprawling department. NPR's Brian Naylor has been watching the hearing and joins us now. And Brian, what more did we learn about Kelly today?

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Audie, I think we learned that senators really like the guy. He has appeared before them before as head of U.S. Southern Command. He served three tours in Iraq in the Marines. And so there's a certain familiarity with him and a certain respect for his service. It was very positive, only a few really tough questions. I think mostly he said what senators wanted to hear. For instance, this was in his opening statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KELLY: I've never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations. I also value people that work for me speaking truth to power.

NAYLOR: Senator Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the panel, said that was music to her ears, the idea of speaking truth to power, especially to President-elect Trump, who many Democrats are concerned doesn't often hear truth to power spoken to him. Republicans, though, also heard what they wanted. Senator John McCain, who introduced Kelly, called him an excellent choice, superbly qualified.

And then he tossed him a few - I wouldn't say softballs, but let's say slow pitches to Kelly. He asked him if he was opposed to waterboarding, which President-elect Trump has in the past expressed support for. But General Kelly said that it was a line that he felt that the United States shouldn't cross. He then asked Kelly about building a wall along the southwest border, and here's how Kelly responded.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY: A physical barrier in and of itself - certainly as a military person that understands defense and defenses - a physical barrier in and of itself will not do the job. It has to be really a layered defense. If you were to build a wall from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, you'd still have to back that wall up with patrolling by human beings, by sensors, by observation devices.

NAYLOR: So as you can see, that there's a little bit of a kind of a nuanced position on the idea of whether it's just - a physical barrier is needed. He's saying it's not.

CORNISH: Right. You're bringing up the wall. You mentioned waterboarding. Do we have a sense about where Kelly is in terms of how in-sync he is with the president-elect?

NAYLOR: Well, I think that for the most part he is. But he also stressed that the problems that bring migrants into the U.S. are complex. Here's what he has said about why there are people who have been crossing the border and will continue to cross the border whether there's a wall or not.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KELLY: I'm confident that most of the people that are coming up here from certainly Central America are coming here for two reasons. One - three, probably. One - the first is it is very unsafe. They're the most - some of the most dangerous countries on the planet. And that's unfortunate. Not a lot - because of that, not only because of that, but a lot of social issues or lack of economic development.

NAYLOR: But also, when he was pressed about immigration policy, he stressed that he has not been involved in the discussion so far with the incoming administration.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Thank you.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.