WASHINGTON (CN) — Only days after a federal watchdog refused to waver on its finding that Chad Wolf has been serving illegally as acting director of the Department of Homeland Security, President Donald Trump nominated the ex-lobbyist to the role permanently.
For over a year, the agency has operated without a Senate-confirmed leader following the resignation of former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen — an exit that experts say stemmed from disputes over the administration’s handling of illegal immigration, a core issue with Trump’s base.
According to accounts from unnamed officials reported by the Associated Press last April, Trump’s adviser Stephen Miller actively scoured through the line of succession to weed out officials who rubbed Trump the wrong way.
Just 24 hours before she resigned, Nielsen announced Kevin McAleenan as her successor though his post the time as commissioner of Customs and Border Protection was otherwise third in the line of succession.
Wolf, who replaced McAleenan as the head CPB, became acting secretary of Homeland Security upon McAleenan’s resignation in November.
Wolf’s appointment was found invalid earlier this month by the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan congressional watchdog, which concluded that Nielsen’s changes to the succession order on the eve of her resignation failed to justify McAleenan’s appointment. Her changes did not affect a provision that said leadership of Homeland Security would fall to the CPB head only when the current secretary was unable to serve because of a disaster or emergency.
“Because the incorrect official assumed the title of acting secretary at that time, subsequent amendments to the order of succession made by that official were invalid and officials who assumed their positions under such amendments, including Chad Wolf and Kenneth Cuccinelli, were named by reference to an invalid order of succession,” the report states.
Cuccinelli, the former attorney general for Virginia, serves as Wolf’s deputy secretary.
The GAO’s findings are not enforceable but Homeland Security demanded that the report be rescinded as “baseless.” On Aug. 21, the GAO refused.
“DHS has not demonstrated that our prior decision contains errors of either fact or law nor has DHS presented information not previously considered that warrants reversal or modification of our decision,” GAO general counsel Thomas Armstrong wrote. “Therefore, we decline to reverse or modify the decision.”
While Wolf’s current leadership is in question, the president has the authority to appoint a permanent secretary outside of the order of succession. By elevating Wolf on Tuesday, this would also allow the secretary to make legal changes to the order of succession at the agency.
“I am pleased to inform the American Public that Acting Secretary Chad Wolf will be nominated to be the Secretary of Homeland Security,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “Chad has done an outstanding job and we greatly appreciate his service!”
In recent months, both Wolf and Cuccinnelli have been slapped with lawsuits on a range of issues, with some of the most recent complaining about the use force that federal agents have wielded against protesters on Trump’s direction. Both Wolf and Cuccinelli have been vocal defenders of the choice to deploy federal troops.
Wolf also faces complaints about the expulsion of children seeking U.S. asylum.
In recent days, Wolf was pulled into the orbit of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s legal woes. Bannon was arrested and charged with defrauding donors of $25 million in a scheme to construct a portion of a U.S.-Mexico border wall through a group known as We Build the Wall.
The group once claimed Wolf endorsed them in a press release, but Wolf denied any ties to the now-defunct organization in a Sunday appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Wolf also told CNN he requested the organization remove the release from its website to no avail.
The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately return request for comment.
Before her exit, Nielsen faced weeks of public and congressional outcry for dutifully fulfilling the administration’s hotly contested family-separation orders in place at the U.S.-Mexico border. Her exit from the agency reportedly followed a disagreement with Miller’s push to create a “border czar” inside of the Homeland Security, rather than in the White House.