Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee during his confirmation hearing, Wednesday, Sept. 23.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf testifies before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee during his confirmation hearing, Wednesday, Sept. 23. Shawn Thew/Pool via AP

Trump's DHS Secretary Nominee Defends Record as Senate Looks to End 17-Month Vacancy

Chad Wolf appears headed for confirmation along a party-line vote.

President Trump’s nominee to serve as permanent head of the Homeland Security Department easily brushed aside criticisms of his tenure as its temporary chief during a confirmation hearing on Wednesday, seeming to clear his path to becoming the first Senate-approved secretary there in more than 500 days. 

Chad Wolf, the current acting DHS secretary now seeking Senate confirmation for that post, faced pushback from Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for his roles in overseeing federal law enforcement agents' violent clashes with protesters, the implementation of controversial immigration policies, the department's pandemic response and alleged political interference in work conducted by career civil servants. Wolf maintained an even temper throughout the proceedings and vowed to work with lawmakers and watchdogs to address any concerns about his record. Wolf also echoed the department's conclusion that a finding by the Government Accountability Office that he was serving unlawfully as acting secretary was legally misguided and nonbinding.   

The acting secretary repeatedly praised the DHS workforce, saying his employees have borne the brunt of political attacks while continuing to do their jobs. He also said his top priority in order to address growing threats to the nation is to hire more employees, particularly at Customs and Border Protection. He said Congress has blocked those efforts, though lawmakers have provided funding for the hiring of CBP officers. Border Patrol has for years struggled to keep up with its authorized staffing levels. 

Republicans at the hearing praised Wolf for tackling an array of issues and appeared poised to move his nomination to the Senate floor for confirmation. Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., said Wolf had worked on a “pretty remarkable portfolio” of issues, while committee Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., pledged a speedy vote. 

“It is important we have a confirmed secretary at DHS so, acting Secretary Wolf, I will do everything I can to move this nomination along as expeditiously as possible,” Johnson said. 

On a recent whistleblower report that Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are receiving hysterectomies against their will, Wolf said the DHS inspector general is currently interviewing officials at the facility facing the allegations. He added that “facts on the ground do not support those allegations,” but vowed to hold accountable any individuals involved in wrongdoing. Wolf called the allegations of another whistleblower, Brian Murphy, who until recently served as the head of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, “patently false” and a “fabrication completely.” Murphy has alleged he was instructed by political appointees to downplay the threats posed by Russian interference in U.S. elections and white supremacists, and later faced reprisal for making related disclosures. Wolf said he only reassigned Murphy because the intelligence official had improperly compiled information on U.S. journalists. 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the top Democrat on the panel, grilled Wolf on his decision to delay an intelligence report that found Russian officials were involved in disseminating negative information on Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s mental acuity. Wolf defended his actions, saying he agreed with the intelligence but found the “quality itself” of the document was inadequate. Wolf originally held up the report in July and it was released earlier this month after news reports brought it to light. The acting secretary conceded to Peters it was unusual for a two-page document to face revisions for such an extended period of time. 

Peters criticized Trump for allowing DHS to sit for such an extended period of time without a confirmed secretary, a situation that has led to a series of ongoing lawsuits challenging Wolf’s authority. The extended period without a secretary has “created chaos and confusion” at DHS, with temporary personnel overseeing “slow decision making and the sidelining of experts” that Peters said raised “questions about the judgment and independence of its leaders.” 

Wolf also fended off criticisms that DHS has steered contracts to a company owned by his wife, saying he has held no positions at the department with any involvement in procurement. Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., questioned Wolf’s role as chief of staff in drafting a memorandum that recommended separations of migrant families as a policy option, but Wolf suggested it was not a part of his portfolio at the time and he supported the president’s decision to end the initiative. Wolf defended the ongoing building of new barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, despite criticism DHS was moving forward without conducting environmental impact reports. 

While he pledged DHS would be a steward of the environment, he added, “It has been very clear that it is a national security issue and we’re going to continue that new border wall system.”

Wolf would be Trump's third Senate-confirmed DHS secretary. The position has not had permanent leadership since Kirstjen Nielsen stepped down in April 2019.