President Donald Trump indicated Friday he would name Chad Wolf as the next acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, ending nearly a month of uncertainty over who would fill the job once outgoing acting chief, Kevin McAleenan, steps down.
“He is right now acting and we’ll see what happens,” Trump told reporters when asked if Wolf would be the next DHS chief. “We have great people in there.”
Wolf, who currently serves as acting undersecretary in the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans, would be the fifth person to lead the agency since Trump took office less than three years ago.
A transition between the two DHS leaders hasn’t taken place, according to an agency spokesperson. But McAleenan plans to formally step down after Nov. 11, said White House spokesman Hogan Gidley.
“As the president has said, Kevin McAleenan has done a tremendous job. He’ll be leaving after Veterans Day and after he departs, Chad Wolf will serve as acting secretary in the interim,” Gidley told reporters traveling with Trump late Friday.
McAleenan released a statement Saturday morning saying that Wolf’s experience “in multiple roles at DHS will be invaluable” when it comes to tackling agency challenges.
“Chad understands what it takes to run a vast enterprise such as the Department. He is a proven, thoughtful, and principled executive and I am confident he will serve the president and the American people well as Acting Secretary,” said McAleenan, who also pledged a smooth leadership transition.
The development reflects the latest tumult in a presidency that has experienced record turnover, especially at the vacancy-riddled DHS, which has struggled to hold on to a chief eager to pursue a hard-line immigration policy as aggressively as Trump would like.
Wolf was never confirmed in his current undersecretary position. Senate Democrats also opposed his work under Nielsen in crafting policy that allowed the separation of migrant families apprehended at the southern U.S. border.
McAleenan then took over as acting DHS secretary. His last day was scheduled to be Oct. 31, three weeks after he turned in his resignation to the White House. He agreed to stay on afterward to wait until his successor was named and to help with the transition.
After McAleenan submitted his resignation to the White House on Oct. 11, Trump promised to announce his replacement the following week, declaring “many wonderful candidates!”
Yet, White House officials spent the next several weeks figuring out how to bypass a federal law governing vacancies that would prevent the appointment of Trump’s top two preferred candidates: Ken Cuccinelli, the acting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director, and Mark Morgan, acting Customs and Border Protection commissioner.
Both picks are ineligible to serve as acting Homeland Security secretary because, among other reasons, neither fall in direct line of succession for the job, nor holds a Senate-confirmed role.
Cuccinelli, a frequent tweeter and a familiar face on the television news circuit, has been a favorite of immigration hardliners. But the prospect of his appointment to head the DHS, by potentially circumventing the Federal Vacancies Act, was shut down by several Republican Senators this week.
The upheaval at DHS, where most of the top posts have filled in acting capacity, reflects Trump’s penchant for having Cabinet members and other senior leaders in his administration serve in ways that don’t require a Senate confirmation process.
“I like acting,” Trump said Friday, alluding to a statement he made in February that having acting Cabinet heads and senior aides gives him a still-undefined “flexibility.”
But former agency staff said the unpredictability can send the wrong message to staff, creating an impact on morale and overall public confidence.
“People should be particularly concerned that individuals are filling these roles simply to pursue a political extreme agenda and lack experience in these roles,” said David J. Danelo, the executive director of policy and planning for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Obama administration.
A former Trump administration official said that while Wolf has the experience, McAleenan’s departure had further demoralized career DHS employees.
“I can’t express enough how many of my former colleagues were working very hard and affect outcomes on behalf of Mcaleenan,” the former official said. “Many … have been saddened by his departure and regards him as a true leader in this space.”
Wolf started his career at the DHS in 2002, after 9/11, serving as an assistant administrator of the Transport Security Administration. For many years in between, he also worked as a lobbyist on immigration legislation for companies that favored increases in visas for tech workers, or that wanted to sell their technologies to government agencies.
Wolf was never confirmed in his current undersecretary position, because of concern by Senate Democrats who opposed his work under Nielsen in crafting policy that allowed the separation of migrant families apprehended at the southern U.S. border.
Wolf “played a direct role” in the “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in children being removed from their parents, Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., said during Wolf’s confirmation hearing in July.
“His failure to take responsibility during his confirmation hearing was both disappointing and disingenuous,” said Rosen, a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.
Several labor and advocacy groups have also came out in opposition to his nomination.
John T. Bennett and Camila DeChalus contributed to this report.