Exclusive: Former U.S. homeland chief Johnson says he will not join Biden administration

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who was widely viewed as a strong contender for several Cabinet positions under incoming President Joe Biden, told Reuters on Tuesday he will not join the Biden administration.

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Johnson had been under consideration to become Biden’s secretary of defense, but Biden nominated retired General Lloyd Austin for that role. Johnson was also viewed as a candidate for attorney general, a position that has not yet been announced.

“I will not be in the Biden administration,” Johnson said in an email.

When asked why, Johnson only referred to “the news over the last 24 hours,” possibly referencing reports of Austin’s selection for the top Pentagon role.

Johnson helmed DHS from late 2013 to early 2017. He also served as Department of Defense general counsel in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency and as general counsel of the Air Force during the Clinton administration.

During Johnson’s DHS tenure in 2014, the Obama administration announced a major program to grant deportation relief and work permits to millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, but that effort was ultimately blocked by a federal appeals court.

Johnson also pushed to expand the detention of migrant families as a deterrent following a surge in illegal immigration from Central America in 2014, an effort that drew criticism from pro-immigrant activists.

Johnson’s comments will refocus attention on the other leading candidates for attorney general.

Possible nominees include Sally Yates, a former deputy attorney general, and Doug Jones, a former federal prosecutor and U.S. senator with a strong civil rights record, Reuters reported earlier this month.

Federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland has also been mentioned in media reports as a contender.

Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Additional reporting by Sarah Lynch in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Matthew Lewis