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How Chad Wolf rose to be key to Trump's reelection

An empty chair before a panel of lawmakers this week became the latest affront to a Democratic-led House by the Trump administration.

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Priscilla Alvarez
Geneva Sands, CNN
CNN — An empty chair before a panel of lawmakers this week became the latest affront to a Democratic-led House by the Trump administration.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf skipped a House hearing on threats to the US homeland Thursday despite a subpoena compelling him to attend. But as Democratic members of the Homeland Security Committee lamented his absence, Wolf had other plans: meet with Senate committee staff to discuss his nomination to get the job leading the department on a permanent basis.

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."

Wolf's rise to his current position as one of President Donald Trump's most prominent Cabinet members has been anything but conventional and yet, seemingly inevitable in a department rattled with consistent leadership turnover.

The carousel of leaders who have filled, then vacated, roles within the Department of Homeland Security over the last three years has fueled turmoil and distrust. It also resulted in Wolf's ascent.

The third largest federal department, which is at the core of the President's policy agenda, has had five secretaries since Trump took office, only two of whom were Senate-confirmed: John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen. In recent months, federal judges and a government watchdog have cast doubt on the validity of the appointments of the top two officials in DHS leadership, Wolf and Ken Cuccinelli.

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.

In Trump's renewed law-and-order push, Wolf has become crucial to the President's reelection strategy -- fielding criticism from current and former administration officials who argue he is further politicizing the department.

"He's made things more politicized and doesn't inspire his workforce," one DHS official said.

Infighting within the department spilled into public view this month when Brian Murphy, who headed the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging Wolf and Cuccinelli repeatedly instructed career officials to modify intelligence assessments to suit Trump's agenda by downplaying Russia's efforts to interfere in the US and the threat posed by White supremacists. DHS has denied those claims.

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."

Trump himself has repeatedly lavished praise on Wolf -- at times, cutting into his news conferences to single Wolf out and commend his work. "Where is Chad? Thank you very much, Chad. You're right in the heart of it, and you've got some big things coming," Trump said at an August event. "Good job."

Latest in a line of 'acting' leaders

The job of acting secretary is not a position Wolf expected to find himself in. The request to take the acting secretary role was abrupt and came amid the departure of his predecessor Kevin McAleenan, who stayed on longer than planned while the White House scrambled for a replacement. The administration tried to elevate Cuccinelli and Mark Morgan, both who were leading agencies within DHS at the time, but neither were eligible. When Wolf took over the top role in mid-November it was unclear how long he would last.

"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."

"If Trump gets reelected, it kind of exceeds my imagination," said Chertoff during a panel discussion earlier this month about the future of DHS. "The more there is a sense that you have a President who wants to politicize the department like this, the harder it's going to be to retain people and the harder it is to retain public trust, which for DHS is critical if it's going to carry out its mission," Chertoff added.

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.

Since Trump took office, DHS has mostly been defined by its immigration mission, including a fervent push to build the border wall and the arrest and deportation of undocumented immigrants. By the time Wolf came into the acting secretary post, the surge of migrants at the US-Mexico border that had embroiled the department -- and angered the President -- for months in 2019 had started to wind down, allowing Wolf to stay largely under the radar after assuming the role.

Aligned with Trump's agenda

In February, Wolf went on Fox News and picked a fight with New York, which is led by a Democratic governor, over a state law that allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for a New York driver's licenses while protecting applicants' information from immigration enforcement agencies. The move was in lockstep with Trump who, in his State of the Union address earlier that week, blamed New York's "sanctuary" policies for causing harm to the public.

The motivations behind the decision were called into question and DHS eventually admitted in court documents that it made false statements to defend the move. New York residents have since been allowed to participate in Trusted Traveler Programs, which allow for speedy access though airports and land borders.

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.

Under the Trump administration, Wolf has filled a number of roles at the department, where he worked closely with former Secretary Nielsen, whose tenure was marked by the administration's controversial "zero tolerance" policy that led to the separation of thousands of families who illegally crossed the border. Shortly before Nielsen was ousted, Wolf was transferred to the policy office, setting up his rise at the department.

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.

Before assuming the top DHS post, Wolf, 44, was nominated by Trump to serve as undersecretary for the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans at DHS and confirmed by the Senate for the policy role on November 13, 2019 -- the same day, he was designated as the acting secretary.

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.

In mid-July, Wolf visited Portlan after weeks of ongoing protests, some of which were violent and targeted federal buildings and personnel. Wolf said that "lawless anarchists" were set on destroying property and attacking federal law enforcement officers. He also accused local leaders of a failed response that emboldened the "violent mob."

DHS law enforcement officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection were deployed to Portland to assist the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for protecting federal government facilities and their employees and visitors.

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.

The administration eventually reached a deal with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, and federal authorities began to step back. Wolf later admitted that the department needs to do a better job communicating.

"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."

In late August, weeks into the Portland unrest, Trump announced his intention to nominate Wolf to serve as Homeland Security secretary -- a surprising maneuver given Trump's preference to have Cabinet officials serve as acting because, he says, it gives him "more flexibility." DHS has not had a Senate-confirmed secretary since April 2019.

"I strongly believe that the department needs a confirmed secretary," Wolf told CNN two days before the President announced the nomination in a tweet.

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