The carousel of leaders who have filled, then vacated, roles within the Department of Homeland Security over the last four years has fueled turmoil and distrust — and it now comes just days before a major security event.
The acting leaders of the Defense, Justice and Homeland Security departments are all relatively new to their jobs. Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller began in early November and acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen started on Christmas Eve.
“For months we have known Chad Wolf has been serving illegally in his position, so the timing of his resignation from the Department today is questionable. He has chosen to resign during a time of national crisis and when domestic terrorists may be planning additional attacks on our government,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson in a statement Monday.
Rep. Jason Crow, a Colorado Democrat and member of the Armed Services Committee, accused Wolf of “shirking” his responsibilities, but said the immediate question is dealing with the widespread domestic terrorism event that was “birthed last week.”
“We have a lot of adversaries that are looking to take advantage of us during this time period of extreme vulnerability,” Crow said.
Rep. Conor Lamb told CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday that lawmakers had been warned about a plan by extremists to encircle the seat of Congress and as well as more threats against legislators. “They were talking about 4,000 armed ‘patriots’ to surround the Capitol and prevent any Democrat from going in,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said.
The inauguration is designated as a National Special Security Event, which is intended to bring in the full force of the federal government and its resources. Presidential nominating conventions, for example, is also designated as a National Special Security Event. Planning for these events often happens at least a year in advance, according to a former DHS official.
“I don’t know that him leaving is going to have that much of an impact operationally,” the former official said of Wolf, noting that DHS has been operating under acting leadership for much of the Trump administration and to some degree, is accustomed to the consistent change.
“It’s a component operation. The role of a secretary in a NSSE is less operational, and more administrative,” another former DHS official said. “The doers are at the worker bee level.”
A senior DHS official told CNN that planning is ongoing, despite the change in leadership.
“As in every presidential transition, the senior career staff is diligently on the job, making sure the work of protecting the nation goes uninterrupted. Same for this,” the official said, adding that Gaynor is uniquely qualified to facilitate coordination as a result of his extensive experience.
“[Emergency managers] know how to coordinate and that’s what we need right now. That’s why Pete is the perfect guy,” the official said.
Another DHS official echoed the same confidence in inauguration planning. “Those plans are developed by experts and will be implemented as planned,” the official said.
“I’ve been working with Administrator Gaynor, now Secretary Gaynor, for quite some time and he knows the department well and is well prepared to lead the department,” Ken Cuccinelli, senior official performing the duties of the deputy secretary, said on Fox News Tuesday morning.
The White House referred questions about Wolf’s departure to DHS.
“He’s got a lot of experience working with Secret Service from his time at Camp David,” the former DHS official told CNN, adding that Gaynor is “very capable.”
Under Gaynor’s tenure at FEMA, the agency juggled natural disasters as well as response to the coronavirus pandemic, including distribution of personal protective equipment.
Gaynor told his workforce Monday that he would serve as acting DHS secretary until January 20 when Biden is inaugurated, adding that a regional administrator, Bob Fenton, will serve as the senior official performing the duties of the FEMA administrator in the interim.
“While there are many changes during any Presidential transition, our focus at FEMA continues to be helping people before, during and after disasters. Right now, our nation is facing significant challenges and it is our privilege to support the nationwide efforts to fight the pandemic and protect our homeland,” Gaynor said.
FEMA is among the components involved in National Special Security Events to facilitate coordination across government entities.
Since last Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol, there have been adjustments to inauguration planning, according to the senior DHS official. “There will be measures in place, some of which are visible, some of which are not, that will serve as a deterrent for threats,” the official said.