The Department of Homeland Security, at the center of some of the administration’s most controversial and political actions from immigration restrictions to an aggressive response to protests in Portland, Oregon, is mostly run by temporary officials, skirting the scrutiny that comes from putting leadership through confirmation.
The department’s leadership in acting positions has repeatedly found itself pursuing Trump’s agenda. In the last three years, DHS has rolled out some of the most stringent immigration policies, and most recently, deployed personnel to respond to protests, some of them violent, after George Floyd’s death – nearly all under leadership that hasn’t been confirmed by the Senate.
“The President has fired or forced out nearly every Senate confirmed leader in DHS. Those remaining are neither accountable to Congress nor empowered to push back against unreasonable political pressure,” said Carrie Cordero, a senior fellow at Center for a New American Security and CNN legal analyst.
Of 27 top roles at DHS, 10 are filled in an acting capacity. The three main immigration agencies under the department – Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection and US Citizenship and Immigration Services – have been helmed by acting officials for more than a year.
Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled that it was unlawful to appoint Ken Cuccinelli to lead USCIS, the agency responsible for processing US immigration requests. Cuccinelli continues to serve in that role, while also performing the duties of the deputy secretary for the Department of Homeland Security – demonstrating how thinly spread the department’s leadership is.
Since 2017, the department has had five secretaries – only two of which were confirmed by the Senate, John Kelly and Kirstjen Nielsen. The others have occupied the role in an acting capacity, often leaving the department’s leaders at the whims of the President and as a result, vulnerable to increased politicization.
“DHS in the Trump administration has been asked to do tasks that are within their mandate, but the political commentary on that purpose – and the suggestion of intent in doing those tasks – have made it unnecessarily political,” a former DHS official told CNN. “I think that applies to a lot of the immigration issues, as well as helping (Federal Protective Service) guard federal buildings.”
Last November, Trump tapped Chad Wolf to head the department after his predecessor, Kevin McAleenan, resigned. Wolf was Senate confirmed for his position as undersecretary for the DHS Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans, but immediately took over as the acting secretary.
“All presidentially appointed positions, whether acting or Senate confirmed, serve at the pleasure of the President,” a DHS spokesperson told CNN.
In the months since Wolf’s been in the job, the department has continued to push forward restrictionist immigration policies, touted Trump’s border wall and doubled down on the President’s message of law and order.
Trump appears to have taken notice, often lavishing praise on the acting secretary. During a recent news conference with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Trump cut into his remarks to call out Wolf. “Where is Chad? What a good job you’re doing, Chad. Great job. We’re proud of you,” Trump said.
At a moment when the country is focused on racial inequality and police brutality, Wolf seems to be in lockstep with Trump. Earlier this month, DHS announced it had established a new task force centered on protecting monuments, memorials and statues and descended on Portland, where protests persist.
DHS law enforcement officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection have been deployed to Portland to assist the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for protecting federal government facilities and their employees and visitors.
It’s not unusual for Homeland Security personnel to support local law enforcement when requested and work in close coordination with them. After Floyd’s death, which fueled protests nationwide, DHS also deployed more than 600 personnel in part to help protect federal monuments, buildings and property.
But in Portland, the involvement of federal authorities has fueled tension between local officials and the DHS, particularly after personnel were caught on camera arresting protesters and putting them in unmarked cars.
On Friday, a US attorney in Oregon requested an investigation of the federal authorities who have not been wearing ID badges.
“Any time someone makes an allegation of wrongdoing of DHS personnel, it is looked into at various levels,” the DHS spokesperson said.
Despite pushback from local officials, Wolf and other top leadership in the department have repeatedly defended their actions and criticized decisions by the city.
On Sunday, Wolf condemned Portland’s decision to remove DHS from the local emergency operations center, calling it “dangerous.” “Local police & federal law enforcement benefit by regular communication-not less,” he said on Twitter. “This decision defies logic & plays politics with officer safety.”
Cucinelli told CNN’s John Berman on “New Day” Monday that as long as a threat remains to federal facilities in the city, DHS would continue to maintain a law enforcement presence there.
“When that violence recedes and those threats recede, that is when we would ratchet back down to what I would call normal presence, defending and protecting federal facilities, that is regularly present in Portland,” he said.
But despite strong arming by top officials, the department conceded in an internal memo, obtained by the New York Times, that deployed personnel would need more training if these deployments are going to continue.
“Moving forward, if this type of response is going to be the norm, specialized training and standardized equipment should be deployed to responding agencies,” the memo reads, according to the Times.
The DHS spokesperson said in a statement that all DHS agencies involved had their training records reviewed to make sure “their tasked missions aligned with their appropriate training.” FPS also ensured officers received additional training for their deployment in the city, the spokesperson added.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon sued DHS Friday over the arrests. DHS declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing ongoing litigation.
On Sunday, House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, and Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney also urged the inspectors general of the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to open an investigation into tactics used against protesters.
Members of Congress have repeatedly called into question DHS leadership. During congressional hearings, it’s common for lawmakers, predominantly Democrats, to raise the issue of acting officials at the department before jumping into questioning. Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, is among those lawmakers.
Thompson criticized the installment of Wolf as acting secretary in November and the lack of permanent leadership at the department.
“The seven months the Homeland Security Secretary position has remained vacant, and without a nominee, is far too long for a department charged with keeping the country secure. DHS needs well-qualified, permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership as soon as possible,” he said.
Dave Lapan, a former Homeland Security official, noted that in addition to vetting and congressional oversight, Senate confirmations add stability.
“Someone who’s gone through the Senate confirmation process has a measure of stability to their position,” he said, adding that the rhetoric from the top of DHS can influence the department as a whole.
“The standard they’re setting is that DHS is going to be a partisan, political organization,” Lapan said.
CNN’s Chandelis Duster contributed to this report.