Watch CBS News

Chad Wolf resigning as acting Homeland Security chief, citing court battles over appointment

Democrats ask Pence to invoke 25th Amendment
Democrats call on Pence to invoke 25th Amendment to remove Trump 07:36

Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), announced his resignation on Monday, citing court battles over the legality of his appointment to lead the sprawling bureaucratic juggernaut.

In a message to DHS employees obtained by CBS News, Wolf said he was "saddened" to resign and suggested he was effectively forced to do so. 

"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 wrote. "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."

According to DHS press secretary Chase Jennings, Wolf will remain at the department as head of its policy and planning office, a second post he held while serving as acting secretary. He was confirmed to the under secretary position by the Republican-led Senate in 2019.

Wolf's resignation comes three days after a federal judge in California ruled that his appointment as acting secretary in November 2019 was likely unlawful, blocking a set of sweeping asylum restrictions that were slated to take effect Monday.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress' investigative arm, and other federal courts have also concluded that DHS officials failed to follow legal requirements that dictate leadership appointments when Wolf was installed as acting secretary. 

Several major Trump administration immigration policies — including restrictions on work permits for asylum-seekers and the planned suspension of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors — have been blocked by federal judges who determined that Wolf did not have the authority to approve them.

Three days before the court ruling on Friday, Wolf's nomination to be the permanent, Senate-confirmed secretary of homeland secretary was withdrawn by the White House. A Trump administration official with ties to Wolf said the move placed the acting secretary designation on shaky legal grounds, raising concerns about Wolf's ability to continue serving legally in the role.

Pete Gaynor, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will become acting secretary upon Wolf's resignation, which will take effect Monday at midnight.

"Right now, our nation is facing significant challenges and it is our privilege to support the nationwide efforts to fight the pandemic and protect our homeland," Gaynor said in a message to FEMA personnel that was obtained by CBS News. "I know you will not waiver in your dedication to our mission."

While Ken Cuccinelli is the second-highest ranking official at DHS, his appointment has also been determined to be invalid by the GAO. A federal judge last March separately concluded that Cuccinelli had been unlawfully appointed to his second post as the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Wolf's resignation comes after the departure of two other Cabinet secretaries in the days since the attack on the Capitol. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos both stepped down from their posts in the wake of the attack.

Since being tapped to lead DHS after the departure of then-acting secretary Kevin McAleenan in November 2019, Wolf has been a loyal supporter of President Trump's immigration agenda, repeatedly touting his department's efforts to restrict asylum eligibility, construct barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border and limit temporary work programs.

Wolf was also a vocal defender of the federal government's aggressive response to anti-racism protests and riots in Portland last summer, when he dispatched DHS agents to the city despite opposition from local Democratic politicians.

In the wake of the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol by Mr. Trump's supporters last week, Wolf issued a statement strongly condemning the violence and calling on the president to forcefully denounce it. During the attack, Wolf was in Bahrain to broker security and travel agreements with the government there.

A former senior DHS official who was granted anonymity to speak freely said the department had focused on "things that were politically important to the White House, not the core mission" during Wolf's tenure. 

John Sandweg, a former general counsel at DHS during the Obama administration, said Wolf "leaves behind a tarnished legacy" due to the department's politicization. "To try to repair his reputation here with an early departure that perhaps indicates some sort of protest with what happened on January 6 is, I think, too little too late," Sandweg told CBS News.

But Wolf strongly defended his record in his message to employees Monday, saying his job entailed "difficult questions" and "hard decisions."

"Together, we have strengthened border security, reformed our immigration system, stood up a world class cybersecurity agency, increased the worldwide aviation security baseline, enhanced US Coast Guard readiness, countered malign nation-state influence, responded to countless natural disasters, highlighted the vital work of the Federal Protective Service, supported the security of multiple federal and state elections, and continue to respond to a global pandemic," he said.

Wolf also said DHS is prepared for "an orderly and smooth transition" into President-elect Joe Biden's administration. Mr. Biden has tapped Alejandro Mayorkas, a former federal prosecutor and Obama-era DHS official, to lead the department.  

"Welcome them, educate them, and learn from them," Wolf told DHS employees. "They are your leaders for the next four years — a time which undoubtedly will be full of challenges and opportunities to show the American public the value of DHS and why it is worth the investment."

Nicole Sganga and Arden Farhi contributed to this report.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.