He took the podium today in the Rose Garden to describe why he could not refuse President Obama's nomination to be next secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"I was not looking for this opportunity," said Johnson, a litigation partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. "I had left government at the end of last year and was settling back into private life and private law practice."
Addressing the crowd at the White House today, the New York native recalled the lasting impact of being present in Manhattan during the Sept. 11 attacks. "I wandered the streets of New York that day and wondered, and asked, 'What can I do?'" Johnson said. "Since then I have tried to devote myself to answering that question."
Obama today officially nominated Johnson for the Homeland Security job during the White House ceremony, calling him a "cool and calm leader" who has made tough calls through two administrations. Johnson is "respected across our government as a team player," Obama said.
Obama lauded Johnson's history of leadership on policy issues, from fighting terrorist cells overseas to co-authoring a report that defused the controversy over allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly—part of the movement to repeal Don’t Ask, Don't Tell in 2010.
"'We must adopt legal positions that comport with common sense,' Jeh says, 'consistent with who we are as Americans,'" Obama said at the announcement. "Jeh's a pretty good lawyer so he knows what that means."
Former Homeland Security lawyers said the job is one of the most challenging in the federal government because the department is one of the world's largest and most complex organizations. Johnson, the lawyers said, has extensive and specific experience with the national security issues to succeed.
Johnson's career path through the Defense Department certainly gave him familiarity with some of the national security and homeland security issues he will face running the department, said Stewart Baker, a Steptoe & Johnson LLC partner who spent more than three years as DHS' assistant secretary for policy.
"He has had an extensive experience watching people run one of the world's largest organizations," Baker said. "He's a serious guy, he's well regarded and they certainly could have done worse."
Evan Wolff, a former senior advisor at DHS who is now a partner in Crowell & Moring’s government contracts group, said Johnson will likely confront terror threats, natural hazards and cybersecurity attacks—all of which will require a lot of work with private industry on regulatory and voluntary fronts.
"The challenge comes because the department has such a wide range of issues it's responsible for, including issues that are going to be important for this administration, like immigration reform," Wolff said.
Johnson was a litigation partner for two decades at Paul Weiss, and was general counsel of the Air Force during the Clinton administration. He was a policy adviser and top fundraiser for Obama's 2008 campaign. His nomination to lead the Homeland Security department now heads to the Senate for review.
The Senate confirmed another top homeland security attorney this week. Stephen Preston, the top lawyer at the Central Intelligence Agency and a former partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, was unanimously confirmed October 16 as general counsel to the Defense Department.