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Obama lauds DHS pick Jeh Johnson as 'cool and calm leader'

Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Jeh Johnson, his choice for the next Homeland Security Secretary, in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday.

President Barack Obama formally nominated former Defense Department general counsel Jeh Johnson to head the Department of Homeland Security Friday, calling him “a cool and calm leader” who has worked across the aisle to bolster the nation’s security.

“Jeh is respected across our government as a team player,” Obama said during remarks at the White House Rose Garden. “He is someone who knows how to get folks who don’t always agree to work towards a common goal.”

Johnson, who left the Pentagon last year to return to New York law firm Paul Weiss, said he was not seeking to return back to public service but that "when I received the call, I could not refuse it." 

"I am a New Yorker, and I was present in Manhattan on 9/11, which happens to be my birthday," he said. "When that bright and beautiful day was shattered by the largest terrorist attack on our homeland in history, I wandered the streets of New York and asked 'What can I do?' Since then, I have tried to devote myself to answering that question." 

If confirmed, Johnson, 56, would replace Janet Napolitano, who left the job in September to lead the University of California system.  He would also be the first African-American to lead DHS.

As the Pentagon’s top lawyer, Johnson was a key player in the Obama administration’s decision-making on issues like drone policy, counterterrorism, and interrogation procedure.

He also helped write an influential report on the service of gays in the military that paved the way for the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy.

At Paul Weiss, he’s represented major businesses like Gillette and Citigroup.

Johnson has served both in the private and public sectors as a top attorney. From 1998-2001, he served as the general counsel of the Department of the Air Force. Earlier in his career, he was an Assistant United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York.