en. John Kelly is a hard man to refuse. So when Kelly, the incoming secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, asked Kirstjen Nielsen ’99 to become his chief of staff in January 2017, she had little alternative but to accept. Even though it meant selling the private consulting firm, Sunesis Consulting, she had founded and led for nearly five years.
“It wasn’t a planned decision,” Nielsen said, “but I haven’t looked back.”
Six months after Nielsen returned to a government role, Kelly resigned to become White House chief of staff and took Nielsen with him, again to serve as his top deputy. Within weeks, though, he persuaded President Donald Trump to name her as his successor at Homeland Security. The Senate confirmed her nomination Dec. 5. She is the second UVA Law graduate to serve in the role, following Janet Napolitano ’83, now president of the University of California.
Nielsen steps into one of the most important jobs in the federal government, responsible for a department employing more than 240,000 people and charged with a wide portfolio that includes thwarting terrorist attacks, securing the border, ensuring cybersecurity and responding to hurricanes and other natural disasters. She meets with Kelly daily and the president as often as four to five times a week, depending on events and her own heavy travel schedule. Its name notwithstanding, much of the business of the Department of Homeland Security involves working with agents and private businesses overseas, as well as with foreign governments.
Though she has worked in and out of government, Nielsen knew she wanted to pursue international relations from an early age. The daughter of two Army doctors (her father is of Danish heritage, her mother is Italian), Nielsen was born in Colorado Springs but grew up in Tampa, Florida, where she ran cross-country, served as student body president and was a midfielder on a district championship soccer team. Thinking that she might become a diplomat, Nielsen attended Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and studied abroad in Nagoya, Japan. She worked for former U.S. Sen. Connie Mack of Florida for two years before attending law school.
“Do we have all the authority we need to do the mission that the American people have asked us to do?”
Nielsen still aimed for a career in international relations while at UVA (she proudly calls herself a “Hoya-Hoo,” after her alma maters’ nicknames). In addition to courses on constitutional, corporate and mass media law, Nielsen fondly recalled a seminar taught by professors David Martin and John Setear, “International Law and the Nobel Peace Prize,” which coincided with a 1998 conference of Nobel peace laureates hosted by the University. Nielsen wrote a paper on the International Court of Justice and its role in banning landmines for the class. “It was a unique way to learn about law and how it could be made and applied,” Nielsen said. She also participated in the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition and served on the University Judiciary Committee.
“UVA is a special place because it is based on the idea of collaboration, which doesn’t just differentiate it from other law schools but from other graduate schools,” she said. “Learning in a group, finding your way through a team, particularly if the other members of the team didn’t always agree with you — those were skills that served me tremendously well.”
After spending two years as an associate with a Dallas law firm, Nielsen joined the George W. Bush administration, where she rose quickly. She established the Transportation Security Administration’s Office of Legislative Policy and Government Affairs, and also served as special assistant to the president and senior director for prevention, preparedness and response at the U.S. Homeland Security Council, a predecessor to the Cabinet department she now heads. Nielsen left the administration in 2007 and spent five years leading a homeland and national security policy practice at Civitas Group before starting her own firm in 2012.
In announcing Nielsen’s nomination, Trump noted that she is the first Homeland Security secretary to have previous experience within that department and predicted, “There will be no on-the-job training for Kirstjen.”
There have only been six Homeland Security secretaries in the department’s 15-year history, so there is something of a bond among them. Nielsen said that she hears frequently from two of her predecessors, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, and of course Kelly. In addition to keeping the homeland safe, she summarizes her goals under the umbrella of “maturing the department.”
“Do we have all the authority we need to do the mission that the American people have asked us to do?” Nielsen asked. “Do we have the resources? Do we have the training? That’s what we’re looking at now, to make sure those things match up.”
John Mitnick ’88 Signs On as DHS General Counsel
Though it has been over 10 years since they last worked together, John Mitnick ’88, the new general counsel of the Department of Homeland Security, holds his boss, Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ’99, in high esteem.
“She is extremely bright, a quick study, and pleasant and generous as a person,” Mitnick said.
The admiration is mutual. “John can digest information very quickly and he can be very clear, which is what you want in an attorney,” Nielsen said.
Mitnick moves to DHS from The Heritage Foundation, where he served as general counsel for four years. From 2007-13, he was the general counsel of a division of Raytheon, a major U.S. defense contractor. He holds two law degrees, including one from Oxford University that he earned in the midst of his years at UVA.
Mitnick has also dabbled in politics, running for Congress in 1996. A former partner at Atlanta’s Kilpatrick Stockton (now Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton) specializing in corporate work, he joined the Bush Justice Department just one week before the 9/11 attacks. When the Bush administration sought attorneys to staff what would become the Department of Homeland Security, Mitnick volunteered, turning his career in a new direction.
Mitnick and Nielsen are also serving with fellow alum Jonathan Hoffman ’02, assistant secretary for public affairs at the department.