The Department of Homeland Security’s leadership change likely will take longer than previously announced because President Donald Trump’s pick for the acting secretary role, Chad Wolf, is waiting on Senate confirmation for a different job, according to three people who described the complex succession plan.
Wolf, the current acting DHS undersecretary for strategy, policy, and plans, was nominated for that job in February but has not been confirmed. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plans to hold a vote for Wolf early next week for the undersecretary job, according to an administration official, a senior GOP aide and a congressional staffer monitoring the succession plan. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe personnel moves within the Trump administration.
Once confirmed for the undersecretary role, Wolf could be placed in the top job at the DHS, the people said, allowing the White House to install him.
The unusual plan is the latest wrinkle in the Trump administration’s efforts to replace outgoing acting secretary Kevin McAleenan, who was supposed to step down at the end of October after submitting his resignation on Oct. 11. McAleenan served for more than six months in the role without a nomination and has stayed on to allow for a smooth transition. The DHS is the country’s third-largest federal agency, with 240,000 employees and a $50 billion budget.
Trump mistakenly told reporters last week that Wolf already was the acting secretary at the DHS. “I put in a very good man, he’s highly respected, and he’s acting right now – we’ll see where that goes,” Trump said.
“I like ‘acting,’ ” added Trump, who has been criticized by members of both major parties for leaving nearly all of the top jobs at the department unfilled or with leaders in temporary, acting roles. “It gives you great, great flexibility.”
White House officials later corrected Trump’s statement and said McAleenan remains in the job.
White House officials say Wolf is not Trump’s permanent pick for DHS secretary. Wolf, 43, was chief of staff to Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen before Trump removed her in April. He worked at the lobbying and consulting firm Wexler & Walker from 2005 to 2017, after working at the Transportation Security Administration.
If the Senate confirms Wolf, he could be sworn in as acting secretary shortly after, though the DHS would have to alter its rules for order of succession to put the undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans ahead of other confirmed officials, including TSA administrator David Pekoske.
Pekoske, the acting deputy DHS secretary, did not want the acting secretary job, and he has indicated that he would prefer to go back to running the TSA.
One senior administration official who described the transition plan said it is important for Wolf to be confirmed before taking over at the DHS as a matter of “good governance.”
Some immigration hard-liners have criticized Trump for installing Wolf, even temporarily, citing his past lobbying work on behalf of Indian companies seeking employment visas.
Wolf is the favored pick of senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who has pushed for aggressive tactics to reduce migration to the United States. As Nielsen’s chief of staff, Wolf had a central role in the “Zero Tolerance” prosecution initiative last year that led to the separation of more than 2,700 migrant parents from their children.
Among the first tasks potentially awaiting Wolf is the implementation of a controversial accord that would allow the United States to send asylum seekers at the U.S. border to Guatemala. The DHS was expecting to implement the agreement last week, but the State Department and the Department of Justice have not given final approval.