Nearly a year into the job and amid questions he was illegally appointed, Homeland Security acting Secretary Chad Wolf will face a Senate panel Wednesday for a confirmation hearing likely to get contentious.
Appearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Wolf potentially faces questions on two recent whistleblower reports from department employees. The legitimacy of the appointment to his current role also has been challenged in federal court and the Government Accountability Office.
Wolf has served as the acting secretary of the department since November. He was sworn in on an interim basis shortly after being confirmed by the Senate for a different role — as the undersecretary of the department’s Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans — in a 54-41 vote. He is the fifth person to head DHS, which has seen high turnover and an unprecedented number of vacant positions among its leadership.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the committee’s ranking member, released a statement last month after President Donald Trump announced the nomination of Wolf, saying he had “serious questions and concerns about his suitability for the job.”
Peters previously opposed Wolf’s nomination for the undersecretary role. Another committee Democrat who voted against him was Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., who delayed his earlier nomination for five months because of his role in developing the administration’s family separation policy.
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., another panel member, pressed Wolf earlier this year about his decision to deploy armed Homeland Security agents to Portland, Ore., following mass protests against police brutality. Hassan argued the presence of agents did little to de-escalate the tensions there.
Wolf’s department oversees the three main immigration agencies — Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, and Citizenship and Immigration Services — as well as the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service.
DHS has been without a Senate-confirmed secretary since Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April 2019 after reportedly refusing to implement tougher measures to stem migration at the southern U.S. border.
In his time as Homeland Security chief, Wolf has pushed through some of the department’s most contentious immigration policies, including the summary expulsion of more than 8,000 unaccompanied children at the border during the pandemic. He has not been afraid to engage in high-profile back-and-forth over these decisions with congressional Democrats, as well as with local and state elected officials.
Last week, Wolf defied a House Homeland Security Committee subpoena calling for him to testify at an annual hearing. Wolf called the subpoena “brazenly politicized” on Fox News. He said he initially planned to testify, but pulled out because of his impending nomination.
“Mr. Wolf may attempt to evade oversight and the Department may try silly stunts to distract from this hearing, but we will not waiver,” Rep. Bennie Thompson, the committee’s chairman, said in his opening remarks at the hearing. “The stakes are just too high.”
As Thompson noted at the time, Wolf’s department has been marred by recent allegations by two whistleblowers. Last week, a complaint submitted to the Homeland Security inspector general alleged “jarring medical neglect” and mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis at an ICE facility in Georgia. The complaint included comments from detainees and a nurse, Dawn Wooten, employed at the facility until July 2020, who alleged that hysterectomies were conducted on women without proper consent.
The complaint has prompted calls by House and Senate Democrats for an expedited investigation into the matter. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is also leading a delegation this week to inspect the Georgia facility.
Another whistleblower complaint, made public Sept. 9 by the House Intelligence Committee, alleged that top DHS officials interfered with intelligence gathering to safeguard the president’s political image and promote his immigration agenda. Brian Murphy, who was a senior intelligence officer at the department until he was reassigned on July 31, complained that Wolf ordered him to “hold” an intelligence report on the threat of Russian interference in the 2020 elections because it would make Trump “look bad.”
Wolf’s appointment to his current role has also been under scrutiny. On Sept. 11, a federal judge in Maryland ruled that Wolf was likely appointed to his acting role unlawfully, because proper rules of succession were not followed when he was moved up to that position after the resignations of his predecessors.
The ruling blocked a couple of Wolf’s asylum policies for members of the plaintiff class, and followed a similar conclusion recently published by the Government Accountability Office, which found his appointment “invalid.” The White House called the GAO’s decision “not only wrong, but laughable,” at the time.
Trump formally nominated Wolf earlier this month. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, a policy analyst at the American Immigration Council, said the nomination may have been a tactic to legitimize Wolf’s leadership. On that same date, FEMA 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.
“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.