The White House has appointed Chad Wolf to replace Kevin McAleenan as the latest acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, despite reports that Wolf was a key architect of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Speaking outside of the White House on Friday, President Donald Trump said Wolf would be serving as acting DHS secretary for now. It’s unclear if he’ll be in this post permanently.
Wolf, DHS’s current acting undersecretary, was chief of staff to former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. In 2017, he sent a list to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ counselor Gene Hamilton that outlined more than a dozen methods of reducing the country’s undocumented immigrant population. Family separation was an option on that list.
“Announce that DHS is considering separating family units, placing the adults in detention and placing minors under the age of 18 in the custody of [Health and Human Services] as unaccompanied alien children,” Wolf wrote in his draft plan, which was first obtained by Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office (D-Ore.) and later reported by NBC News in January.
NBC said the network did not include Wolf’s name in its previous report of the draft plan because he was not being considered for a Cabinet position then.
Nielsen ― with Wolf as her chief of staff ― oversaw Trump’s zero tolerance family separation policy until June 2018, when the president ended it by executive action amid public outrage and reports of the disastrous effects separation had on migrant families and children.
Wolf spoke to lawmakers about his thoughts on family separation at his June confirmation hearing for the position of DHS undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans. He said his job was not to decide whether the policy was “right or wrong,” but rather “to ensure that the secretary had all the information that [Nielsen] needed.”
McAleenan submitted his resignation on Oct. 11, just six months after taking over the department from Nielsen, who was reportedly forced out after refusing to reinstate the zero tolerance policy. The Washington Post published an October profile of McAleenan that describes him as becoming increasingly isolated and overshadowed by others considered to be more vocal Trump loyalists.
“What I don’t have control over is the tone, the message, the public face and approach of the department in an increasingly polarized time,” McAleenan told the Post. “That’s uncomfortable, as the accountable senior figure.”
Trump never formally nominated McAleenan as a permanent secretary, but said at the time of his resignation announcement that the acting secretary “has done an outstanding job.”
Wolf’s appointment is complicated by a federal law requiring acting agency chiefs to have served under a Senate-confirmed secretary for 90 days. This week, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said it would be illegal to name someone as acting DHS secretary if they weren’t confirmed in any capacity by the Senate. Wolf has not yet been confirmed as undersecretary.
Trump’s top two favored choices to permanently fill the role of DHS secretary were reportedly Ken Cuccinelli, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director, and Mark Morgan, U.S. Customs and Border Protection commissioner. Both have consistently expressed support for the president and hard-line immigration views that align with Trump’s wishes.
While neither official would technically be allowed to take the job under the aforementioned federal statute, the White House may be able to eventually push one of them in through a loophole.
Carla Herreria contributed to this report.