In the past week, Homeland Security officials spoke to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office about bringing the nomination to a floor vote in the coming weeks — a move seemingly acknowledging both a forthcoming change in administrations and criticism that Wolf’s appointment was invalid.
The latest push is emblematic of how the Department of Homeland Security has operated for the last four years. Over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency, DHS — the third-largest federal department — has had five secretaries, only two of whom have been confirmed by the Senate, and has run into a flurry of questions over the legitimacy and authority of those leading in acting capacities.
As leaders came and went, DHS was thrust to the forefront of some of Trump’s most controversial policies, including the “zero tolerance” policy, which led to the separation of thousands of families at the US-Mexico border, and a series of policies that have made it exceedingly difficult for migrants to seek asylum in the US, among other changes to the immigration system.
President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary will inherit a department that has been pounded and dragged into politics; its sprawling mission was overshadowed by Trump’s emphasis on immigration and border security.
“There’s a lot of damage to repair,” one official told CNN.
Despite attempts to appear apolitical, the department has been thrown into the political maelstrom under Trump. This week, two DHS officials were forced to resign by the White House, according to sources familiar with the resignations.
In recent months, Wolf’s appointment has been cast as invalid by the Government Accountability Office and in federal court, raising concerns that his actions could come under increased scrutiny under the incoming administration.
“To make a long story short, I think the effort to have him confirmed is principally with an eye toward attempting to ratify all of the programs and policies that could be struck down by courts holding his acting appointment was unlawful,” said Steve Vladeck, a CNN legal analyst and University of Texas law school professor.
“From the perspective of a new administration rolling back this administration’s policies, it shouldn’t make a difference whether they’re promulgated by a Senate-confirmed secretary or someone lawfully exercising the duties of the office on an acting basis,” Vladeck added.
McConnell spokesman Doug Andres told CNN on Thursday that there are no scheduling updates or guidance “at the moment.” DHS declined to comment.
Wolf faces questions over his appointment
Wolf serving as head of the department is the result of the consistent, and often abrupt, turnover in the highest ranks of leadership. Previous secretaries tried to accommodate Trump, and then faced the wrath of a President who viewed the department as a political tool to help his reelection.
In his yearlong tenure, Wolf fell in line with Trump’s message of law and order, admonishing Portland, Oregon, over the summer for ongoing civil unrest and traveling across the country in the final weeks of the presidential election to tout the administration’s immigration record.
Current and former Homeland Security officials, meanwhile, warned that the increased politicization of law enforcement risked undercutting public trust in the department. Trump, though, appeared to take notice, name-dropping Wolf during a number of public events and lavishing praise on him.
Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson said he was not aware of an effort to get Wolf confirmed beyond the committee’s approval in September.
“Anything we can do to put in place what policies are there would be a good thing to do,” the Wisconsin Republican said, adding “that’d be a good argument for confirming him,” referring to the idea of preserving policies at DHS beyond the Trump administration.
Without confirmation, Wolf’s appointment — and policies rolled out during his tenure — will continue to face questions.
The court uses the word “purportedly” because there is “some doubt whether Wolf was then (and is now) lawfully exercising the authority of Acting Secretary of Homeland Security,” according to the ruling.
The department said the ratification was done “out of an abundance of caution,” given the challenges to his appointment.
‘They need a reset’
“They need a reset,” a former Homeland Security official told CNN. “They need a new secretary that says we don’t do politics here.”
Biden does not expect to make any announcements on Cabinet nominations until after Thanksgiving, he has said, with advisers adding that “early December” is the target date.
The first batch of announcements is likely to be for those with health, economic and defense portfolios, officials said, with other Cabinet members possibly delayed until early January, when the outcomes of the expected US Senate runoffs in Georgia are known and it’s clear whether Republicans have maintained control of the Senate.
For months the department has been preparing transition documents for the next administration, but direct contact with the Biden team has been stalled as Trump refuses to concede the election.
If the General Services Administration recognizes Biden as the winner of the election and the President-elect, the transition will move ahead quickly, a department official said.
Mark Koumans, a longtime DHS official who is leading the transition effort for the department, recently reminded staff that until there is a declaration from GSA, personnel should refrain from speaking directly with members of the Biden team and continue to go through the department’s transition office, a department official told CNN.
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.