Democratic Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi called the empty chair “an appropriate metaphor for the Trump administration’s dereliction on so many of these critical homeland security issues.”
Previous secretaries tried to accommodate and then faced the wrath of a President who viewed the department as a political tool to help his reelection. From his earliest days in the Trump DHS, Wolf has cultivated an attentive relationship with Stephen Miller, Trump’s lead immigration adviser and architect of the administration’s hardline immigration policies, a source close to Wolf said.
“Chad has always been highly responsive to Stephen Miller,” the source said, citing it as a factor into Wolf’s rise.
“He’s made things more politicized and doesn’t inspire his workforce,” one DHS official said.
A department spokesperson told CNN the view that Wolf is further politicizing the department “is a talking point by one party. The vast majority of Americans would say that acting Secretary Wolf is just doing his job.”
Latest in a line of ‘acting’ leaders
“He did not seek the position but was asked to fill it. He took the role due to his strong desire to serve his country,” a DHS spokesperson said.
Former Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, recently said the President “has done everything he can to cripple the leadership at the department by not allowing anybody to occupy the position permanently.”
The acting DHS chief addressed criticism in the department’s annual State of the Homeland address.
“Amidst this shifting series of challenges, a vocal and ill-informed minority has clamored to paint recent DHS actions as examples of mission drift or politicization. They could not be more wrong,” Wolf said during his nearly 40-minute speech.
DHS was born in a political morass closely identified with the Bush-era controversial counter-terrorism measures. The department spent the intervening years trying to depoliticize and show itself to be a law enforcement agency on par with FBI and others. But since Trump took office, it’s been thrown back into the political maelstrom.
This month’s whistleblower complaint marked another rupture in a department operating with a litany of temporary leadership.
Aligned with Trump’s agenda
But in Wolf, Trump seemed to have an ally.
“I think they’re more comfortable that Wolf understands his role,” one source told CNN, referring to the White House. “Things aren’t going to go well if he’s going to see himself as a resistor to the President’s policy agenda.”
White House deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews said in a statement that “acting Secretary Wolf is a tremendous asset to the department and the President’s mission which is why the President recently nominated him to permanently serve in the role. He has been instrumental in implementing policies responsible for safeguarding the American people and our homeland.”
Wolf’s ascent to acting secretary
Wolf’s time at the Department of Homeland Security predates Trump. Shortly after the 9/11 attacks, Wolf served as assistant administrator of transportation security policy, helping to establish the Transportation Security Administration within the department.
Wolf, who grew up in Mississippi and Texas, worked for a lobbying firm for more than 10 years until returning to TSA in 2017.
Fastidious about his clothing and appearance, Wolf managed to melt in with any number of aides in background photos with senior officials over the first three years of the administration.
Current and former officials say Wolf’s proximity to previous secretaries have shaped his tenure as acting chief. He’s also been described as pensive, but hard to read on where he stands on policy issues. “He’s an on-time type of personality,” said one former DHS official.
In recent months, Wolf’s staff have created an “almost fandom” around him, said the former official, such as posting pictures of him in a helicopter with “5 o’clock shadow” on Instagram. “Trump likes you to be an entertainer, he likes when people are on TV and that catches his eye,” the former official added.
“Acting Secretary Wolf strongly believes that the role of the secretary includes explaining to the public the important work DHS is doing,” the DHS spokesperson said.
Outside of the department, Wolf plays tennis and likes to cycle. His Secret Service detail recently had to start using electric bicycles to keep up with him on rides.
Covid and protests
In his nearly year-long tenure as acting chief, Wolf has been involved in the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic (the Federal Emergency Management Agency which has been a lead coordinator falls under DHS); established a new task force aimed at protecting federal monuments at the President’s request; and visited Portland, Oregon, the site of protests following the police killing of George Floyd, and admonished the city for the persistent unrest there. The department also continues to roll out strict immigration measures and build Trump’s signature border wall.
There were concerns among rank-and-file leadership about the lack of training and equipment for DHS personnel deployed to Portland, a DHS official told CNN. “The response to the civil unrest has been challenging,” the official said, adding that it was unusual for federal special agents to be tasked with riot control. A former senior DHS official told CNN that DHS did not put law enforcement personnel in “a position that they were not ready to perform.”
Homeland Security personnel often support local law enforcement when requested and work in close coordination with them. But in Portland, local leaders argued the unwanted increase in federal presence only escalated tensions.
“I don’t know that he fully appreciated going into Portland, how outside of the norm that was,” said the former DHS official. “He does not have a good framework for how that part of Homeland Security functions, the nature of, the politics of dealing with states and dealing with localities.”
CNN’s Evan Perez contributed to this report.