Homeland Security Chief Steps Down After Condemning Capitol Riot

Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf speaks during a news conference in Washington on July 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said Monday he will resign from his position effective just before midnight, four days after he condemned the insurrection at the Capitol.  

“I am saddened to take this step, as it was my intention to serve the department until the end of this administration,” Wolf wrote in a letter to staff. “Unfortunately, this action is warranted by recent events, including the ongoing and meritless court rulings regarding the validity of my authority as acting secretary.”

Wolf, who has served in his interim position for 14 months, was referring to at least four rulings from federal judges who found he has been unlawfully filling the role left vacant after former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in April 2019.

But his resignation letter also comes just days after he condemned last week’s insurrectionist attack on the U.S. Capitol, which he called “tragic and sickening.”

“This is unacceptable. These violent actions are unconscionable, and I implore the president and all elected officials to strongly condemn the violence that took place yesterday,” Wolf said in a statement Thursday.

He said at the time that he would stay on through the end of President Trump’s term to ensure an orderly transition, but abruptly reversed course Monday. The White House withdrew Wolf’s nomination to permanently head the Department of Homeland Security less than three hours after his statement on the attack.

According to DHS’ order of succession, the agency’s undersecretary for management should fill Wolf’s shoes but that position is vacant — which means Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor will take the helm for now. Wolf indicated the same in his letter Monday.

“Administrator Gaynor is a consummate professional and will lead the department ably,” he wrote.

When Nielsen stepped down as head of the department, the job should have gone to Christopher Krebs — who was director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency until November, when Trump fired him after he refuted the president’s baseless election fraud claims.

But Kevin McAleenan, then-commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, took the job in error. McAleenan, in turn, unlawfully designated Wolf as his successor when he resigned in November 2019, according to one of the rulings against Wolf’s appointment.  

The Government Accountability Office, an impartial congressional watchdog, said in August that both Wolf and his acting deputy, Ken Cuccinelli, were ineligible to serve in their posts.

“These events and concerns increasingly serve to divert attention and resources away from the important work of the department in this critical time of a transition of power,” Wolf wrote in Monday’s letter.

Wolf’s tenure was controversial even beyond concerns over how he came into the job. He deployed federal forces to several American cities last summer, at the request of Trump, while demonstrators protested against racial injustice nationwide in response to the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, in Minneapolis.

In Portland, the actions of federal agents – who were urged by state officials to vacate their city – prompted court orders directing them to stop their violent assaults on the press and demonstrators. Officers defending Portland’s federal courthouse seemed to indiscriminately target demonstrators, even tear-gassing Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Wolf nonetheless defended his actions, testifying to Senate lawmakers that the so-called Operation Diligent Valor welcomed state partners but that “enforcing federal law is not by invitation.”

On Monday, Wolf lauded the “strengthened border security” built under the Trump administration along with what he called immigration reforms and efforts to stop malign foreign interference while responding to a global pandemic.

“Decisions over the past several years have not been easy,” Wolf wrote. “Reforming broken systems or questioning long held beliefs is not for the faint of heart. But our job requires asking difficult questions and making the hard decisions. The American people deserve nothing less.”

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