Written by Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Maggie Haberman
President Donald Trump indicated Friday that he would name Chad Wolf to be the next acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, the fifth person in the administration to lead the agency responsible for securing the country.
Wolf was the chief of staff to Kirstjen Nielsen, who was the homeland security secretary until she was replaced this year by Kevin McAleenan, who said last month that he would resign.
McAleenan will step down from the position after Nov. 11, said Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for the White House. “As the president has said, Kevin McAleenan has done a tremendous job,” Gidley said. “After he departs, Chad Wolf will serve as acting capacity in the interim.”
He declined to say whom the president would nominate to lead the department on a permanent basis.
Confusion over Wolf’s post spread for about two hours late Friday after the president, responding to rumors that Wolf would oversee the department, told reporters: “Well, he’s right now acting, and we’ll see what happens. We have great people in there.”
Administration officials said that the plan was to tap Wolf as the acting secretary as soon as next week, but that it had not happened yet and that Trump had not intended to say it had. One official suggested that Trump and reporters had been talking past one another.
Shortly afterward, a department spokesman said that McAleenan was the acting secretary and Wolf was the acting undersecretary for policy. In his resignation letter last month, McAleenan had said that his last day would be Oct. 31.
The turbulent rollout of Trump’s plans to select Wolf underlined the chaos in the department, which was created after the Sept. 11 attacks to secure the country and has been riddled with vacancies, prompting internal clashes and questions over the agency’s priorities.
The agency has not had a Senate-confirmed leader since April, when Nielsen stepped down. The chiefs of the agencies responsible for Trump’s immigration agenda — Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — are all serving in an acting capacity. Wolf has not been confirmed for his current position.
The confusion has even extended to the White House’s search to find a leader for a sprawling agency of more than 240,000 employees, a search that does not appear to be over. Even when Wolf is officially named as acting secretary, he is not expected to be nominated to the position, according to two administration officials.
Some in the administration have pushed for an acting secretary who displays the same aggressive messaging that Trump looks for when choosing officials to lead the agencies in the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for enforcing Trump’s immigration agenda.
While Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, and Ken Cuccinelli II, who oversees legal immigration, have taken that tack, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel recommended that appointing either of them would violate a federal statute that determines the rules of succession for Cabinet positions.
The White House had explored a way to work around the statute by appointing a potential candidate for the top job to lead homeland security’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office, which is waived from the same Senate approval requirements. But reports of the move prompted backlash from Republicans and Democrats in Congress.
The president’s aides have told him that Wolf would be a legally safer pick.
As Nielsen’s chief of staff, Wolf helped enforce the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy to prosecute families who crossed the border illegally, which led to thousands of children being separated from their parents. Many of those children are still separated from their families.
Wolf is viewed by Stephen Miller, the White House adviser and the chief architect of the president’s border policies, as someone who can reliably put into effect his immigration agenda, according to administration officials.
Before joining the Department of Homeland Security, Wolf worked as a lobbyist representing companies aiming to sell products to the Department of Homeland Security.
Wolf spent several years lobbying to secure funding for the Transportation Security Administration to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new carry-on luggage screening device. He later was chief of staff for the agency as it was evaluating the product.
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