Senate GOP eases Wolf’s path to becoming Homeland Security secretary

Wolf, acting chief for nearly a year, defended his agency against whistleblower claims in a mostly frictionless hearing

A Senate panel will vote Sept. 30 on the nomination of Chad Wolf, seen here at a hearing in February, to become Homeland Security secretary.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
A Senate panel will vote Sept. 30 on the nomination of Chad Wolf, seen here at a hearing in February, to become Homeland Security secretary. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 23, 2020 at 4:42pm

Overcoming a pair of whistleblower reports by employees alleging misconduct and neglect, as well as skepticism over the legality of his current appointment, Chad Wolf faced little resistance at his Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday to become Homeland Security secretary.

Wolf, who has been serving as the department head in an acting capacity for almost a year, was given a wide berth by Republicans on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to explain recent controversies his department has battled.

Despite concerns panel Democrats raised about Wolf's record, the swift, largely frictionless round of questioning suggests the nominee may face a quick confirmation by the full Senate in coming weeks. A committee meeting has been scheduled for Sept. 30 to vote on the nomination.

Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., set the tone of the hearing by congratulating Wolf and his department for their actions related to COVID-19, illegal immigration and federal property amid recent mass protests against police brutality — all areas in which Wolf has been criticized by Democrats, civil liberties groups and immigrant advocates.

“From my standpoint, they’ve done a very extraordinary job dealing with a very difficult situation,” Johnson said in his opening remarks. “What’s unfortunate for someone like acting Secretary Wolf … not only is it a thankless task, but one that opens you up to character assassination as well.” 

Johnson ceded his time early in the hearing to allow Wolf to respond to a number of issues, among them allegations in two recent whistleblower reports from department employees. One alleged that Wolf and his second-in-command interfered in intelligence matters to protect the image of President Donald Trump, downplay the threat of violence by white supremacists and promote a restrictive immigration agenda.

Wolf called those allegations, filed by his former intelligence officer, Brian Murphy, “patently false.”

The second whistleblower complaint included detailed allegations of “jarring” medical neglect of detainees at a Georgia detention center that were backed by a nurse employed at the facility. Wolf said staff from the department’s Office of Inspector General were conducting an inquiry. He assured the panel that the appropriate action would be taken if there is a “kernel of truth” to the allegations, including claims of hysterectomies being carried out without informed consent.

Johnson also asked Wolf to respond to a decision by the Government Accountability Office and a federal judge in Maryland that found Wolf was unlawfully appointed to his current role because his department did not follow the proper rules of succession. Wolf was also asked about an NBC News report on Tuesday that found $6 million in contracts awarded to a firm where Wolf’s wife works as an executive.  

[Legality of Wolf, Cuccinelli appointments to DHS questioned]

Wolf also said he disagreed with the GAO’s legal interpretation and believed he was lawfully appointed to his role. He called the NBC News report “a fabricated story” and claimed no involvement with DHS’ procurement decisions. 

A few Democrats probed him further on all these defenses, along with some of his immigration-related decisions. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., pressed him about his role in a memo that recommended separating families at the southern U.S. border. The memo, written for former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, became public after Wolf told the committee last year that he was not involved. Wolf maintained he was not one of the architects of the memo.

Rosen last year placed a hold on Wolf’s nomination for the role of undersecretary of the department’s Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans. Wolf was ultimately confirmed, however, in a 54-41 vote last November. He was sworn in shortly afterward as acting Homeland Security secretary, becoming the fifth person to hold the position in the Trump administration.

In his opening remarks, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the committee’s ranking member, noted the high turnover and an unprecedented number of vacant positions at DHS. 

“Under this administration, we have unfortunately seen an unprecedented willingness to abandon the norms of Senate-confirmed Cabinet officials. This has been a particular problem at the Department of Homeland Security,” he said. 

“This administration has abused vacancies to the detriment of the department. The president refused to nominate a leader of the DHS for more than 500 days, a move that was not only legally questionable but created chaos and confusion at the agency charged with addressing numerous threats to our national security,” Peters added. 

Trump did not formally nominate Wolf to the position until Sept. 10. 

On that same date, Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Pete Gaynor, who would have been the official next in line to become acting secretary in Wolf’s stead, changed the rules of succession so that Wolf could be legally reinstalled as department head if necessary.

Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, said the nomination may be a tactic to legitimize Wolf’s leadership and resolve outstanding questions regarding the legality of his appointment.

“Thanks to a complicated legal maneuver that was triggered by the nomination, DHS lawyers are now arguing that Wolf has cured the original error which courts and the GAO said prevented him from lawfully serving as Acting Secretary,” Reichlin-Melnick said.