Chad Wolf was sworn in Wednesday as acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, the fifth person to head the agency in the Trump administration.
A DHS spokesperson confirmed Wolf’s new position to CQ Roll Call by email.
Wolf assumed the job just hours after the Senate confirmed him as undersecretary of the agency’s Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans in a 54-41 vote that cleared a logistical hurdle for him.
Wolf replaces Kevin McAleenan, who resigned as acting DHS secretary on Oct. 11.
President Donald Trump nominated Wolf to the undersecretary position in February but he was never confirmed. He had been performing the undersecretary responsibilities in an acting capacity.
Wolf now faces similar challenges as his predecessors: The need to balance the White House’s highly politicized agenda with the policy goals and instincts of career employees. He also will be responsible for stabilizing an agency that has seen drastic turnover and low morale in the current administration.
Trump confirmed he had picked Wolf to head the agency on Nov. 1, nearly a month after McAleenan resigned.
“He is right now acting and we’ll see what happens,” Trump said about Wolf at the time. “We have great people in there.”
Immigration hardliners had favored the much more aggressive Ken Cuccinelli, who for the past five months has served as acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Cuccinelli has been a familiar face on television news shows and an avid tweeter known for his controversial statements that support Trump’s restrictive immigration policies. However, Cuccinelli did not fulfill legal requisites for filling the role under the Federal Vacancies Act.
Wolf, with his Senate confirmation as undersecretary, satisfied those requirements.
DHS changed its website late Wednesday to reflect Wolf’s new role, and also listed Cuccinelli as deputy secretary — No. 2 to Wolf. The administration’s plan to move Cuccinelli up to this role was first reported by CNN.
The chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., denounced Trump’s latest pick.
“The President installing an Acting Homeland Security Secretary who lacks the necessary experience exemplifies the dysfunction that has plagued DHS since the first days of the Trump Administration,” he said, noting that the agency has been without a permanent leader since the beginning of the year.
“The seven months the Homeland Security Secretary position has remained vacant, and without a nominee, is far too long for a Department charged with keeping the country secure. DHS needs well-qualified, permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership as soon as possible.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., started clearing the path for Wolf’s ascent a week after Trump publicly confirmed Wolf as his latest pick for the position. McConnell last week filed a cloture motion to end debate on his nomination for undersecretary. That motion was approved 54-40 late Tuesday.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., who earlier this year put a hold on Wolf’s nomination, and other Democrats remain opposed to advancing his undersecretary appointment — in part because it would serve as a short cut to the role of acting DHS secretary.
“I stand here opposed not only to Mr. Wolf’s nomination, but also to the way in which this administration is circumventing the constitutional requirement of advice and consent to make Mr. Wolf the head of the third-largest department in the federal government,” Rosen said on the Senate floor Tuesday.
“By the president’s own admission, Mr. Wolf is slated to serve indefinitely as acting secretary of Homeland Security. Thus, our votes tonight and tomorrow are effectively to confirm Chad Wolf to be acting secretary of the entire Department of Homeland Security, despite limited vetting, no committee vote, no confirmation hearing for this position.”
Rosen also added her concern that Wolf had served under former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, who oversaw the policy that resulted in family separations. Rosen suggested that Wolf had misled the Senate in his confirmation hearing in June about his involvement in that policy.
“Chad Wolf played a leading role in developing, suggesting, and implementing this inhumane policy,” she said, referring to emails obtained by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and reported by NBC News, that showed Wolf was an architect of a list of recommendations to curb migration that included family separation in 2017.
According to DHS calendars obtained through public records request by the non-partisan ethics watchdog American Oversight, Wolf had also attended meetings and phone calls on the issue in March 2018, even though he told the Senate he had first learned of the issue in April of that year.
Republican Senators generally have supported Wolf’s nomination.
“Dedicated Americans serving at DHS in acting positions are doings admirable jobs under often-times difficult circumstances,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
“I trust that Chad Wolf would do the same if he asked to step aside from his role as undersecretary and serve as acting secretary upon Kevin McAleenan’s departure. But I fully expect — and I call upon the president — to nominate a permanent secretary for the Department of Homeland Secretary. When he does, my committee will consider the nominee expeditiously.”
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. His experience as a lobbyist for employment-based visas has been a sore point for immigration restrictionists and certain labor groups.
DHS officials have a mixed view of Wolf. After Trump named him as his pick, McAleenan released a statement praising Wolf, saying that his experience “in multiple roles at DHS will be invaluable” when it comes to tackling agency challenges.
A former Trump administration official appeared doubtful about Wolf’s ability to advocate the interests of the DHS workforce to Congress and the public. While Wolf has substantial career experience, McAleenan’s departure has further demoralized career DHS employees, the former official told CQ Roll Call.
“I can’t express enough how many of my former colleagues were working very hard to affect outcomes on behalf of Mcaleenan,” the former official said. “Many … have been saddened by his departure and regard him as a true leader in this space.”