Trump to nominate acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf to top role

US Department of Homeland Security Acting Secretary, Chad Wolf, appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on August 6, 2020, in Washington, DC. By Geneva Sands, Priscilla Alvarez and Betsy Klein, CNN

(CNN) -- President Donald Trump announced in a Tuesday tweet he will officially appoint acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf to take over the role on a permanent basis.

Under the Trump administration, the department, which is often at the center of the President's policy and policy initiatives has been plagued by leadership turmoil. Numerous top positions at Homeland Security have been left vacant or filled in an acting capacity.

Wolf has been the acting secretary since November 2019. The department has not had a confirmed secretary since April 2019 when former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was forced to resign.

Wolf has been at the forefront of a host of issues like immigration, civil unrest, and response to the coronavirus pandemic, and as a result, has come under criticism for his actions. During Wolf's 10-month tenure, the department has been marked by a focus on the border wall, a fight with New York over Global Entry and most recently a deployment of federal officers to Portland, Oregon, in opposition to local officials.

Trump has repeatedly lavished praise on Wolf during recent news conferences.

"I am pleased to inform the American Public that Acting Secretary Chad Wolf will be nominated to be the Secretary of Homeland Security. Chad has done an outstanding job and we greatly appreciate his service!" Trump tweeted Tuesday.

Wolf was confirmed by the Senate as under secretary for the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans almost immediately before becoming acting secretary of the full department.

But the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog for Congress, said in a report earlier this month that Wolf's appointment and that of Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli -- the top two leadership roles at DHS -- are invalid.

The department has disputed the GAO conclusion, calling for the agency to "immediately rescind" the report.

"This nomination is a clear admission that the Administration is installed Mr. Wolf as Acting Secretary unlawfully," said House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat. "Since every policy decision Mr. Wolf made since November may be challenged because he lacked proper authority, this is also an attempt to limit the Administration's exposure to legal challenges."

Wolf will remain the acting secretary under the authority of the Homeland Security Act, according to a DHS official.

"The President has the right to nominate anyone he wants to be DHS Secretary, including Wolf -- whether or not he's lawfully serving currently as the Acting Secretary. Indeed, this is the way the system is supposed to work -- on the 503rd straight day without a Senate-confirmed Secretary," said Steve Vladeck, CNN analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

"The better question is why now -- why is the President nominating Wolf, who's been serving as the Acting Secretary for over nine months? The recent GAO opinion concluding that Wolf isn't lawfully serving as Acting Secretary may have a lot to do with it."

On Sunday, Wolf told CNN that he has consistently believed that the department should have a confirmed secretary.

"I strongly believe that the department needs a confirmed secretary. I will continue to say that. I don't make personnel decisions from the White House. The White House Personnel Office does," he said on State of the Union.

Wolf also defended his contact with We Build the Wall, a private group whose founder -- Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage -- was indicted last week, along with Steve Bannon and two others for allegedly defrauding donors as part of a effort purportedly aimed at supporting Trump's border wall. Last year, Wolf visited one of the sites that the group was developing for a private wall on the southern border. When asked about the private group last year, Wolf said, he welcomed "all that want to be a part of the solution."

Days after the indictments, he told CNN, "I wanted to understand how a private organization, if they did -- if they were going to build this on their own, using their own funding, how it integrated with what (Customs and Border Protection) was doing on the border," adding that he "obviously" doesn't support fraud.

Wolf said in a statement Tuesday that he is "honored to be nominated by President Trump to lead the men and women of the Department of Homeland Security in safeguarding the American people."

"As the Homeland faces evolving threats from natural disasters, violent opportunists, malign cyber actors, and transnational criminal organizations, the mission of DHS is as critical as ever," he added.

Tensions grew in Portland last month after federal officers arrived in the city, which has seen prolonged and at times violent protests over demands for racial justice and police accountability. Wolf disputed that the department had inflamed tensions, but said DHS needs to "do a better job communicating" its intentions in the wake of a deployment of federal law enforcement officers.

"Lesson learned, is better communicating exactly who we are targeting. We are not targeting peaceful protesters, individuals exercising their First Amendment rights," he told Axios on HBO in a recent interview.

It is unclear how fast the nomination will proceed, if at all, given the short timeframe before the election.

In response to the President's announcement about Wolf, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted, "Given his past actions, he'd be an awful choice."

The Senate has not received the formal nomination yet from the White House, according to a Senate aide.

Former acting DHS General Counsel John Sandweg told CNN there is "no valid argument" that Wolf's use of the title "Acting Secretary" is lawful. "Not only has GAO found it unlawful from the start, but it now also exceeds the Vacancy Reform Act's 210 day limit on acting officials. His nomination as Acting Secretary only sows further confusion and reinforces arguments that his assertion of the authorities of the Acting Secretary are illegitimate," said Sandweg.

This story has been updated with additional background information and reaction.

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