This Is Still Happening: Chad Wolf

A roundup of Trump administration malfeasance, Part 10.

Chad Wolf, with a torn-paper tag that reads "This Is Still Happening."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images.

This Is Still Happening is a feature in which Slate will attempt to offer an update on senior-level administration corruption, what could be done to bring the officials to account, and what Democrats are doing in response (generally, nothing). The 10th installment is about the acting secretary of homeland security, one of the authors of family separation and the current head of a secret federal police force deployed in Portland, Oregon.

The Official: Chad Wolf, acting secretary of homeland security and under secretary of homeland security for strategy, policy, and plans

What Is Still Happening: The Department of Homeland Security has been at the heart of the Trump agenda, symbolically and substantively. Even as the president’s other campaign messages or promises have been lost to incompetence or indifference, each head of Homeland Security has pushed forward the Donald Trump–Stephen Miller agenda of making the United States as hostile as possible to immigrants—a program of genuine white nationalism, meant to halt the country’s long-term movement toward demographic diversity.

Since taking over as acting secretary of homeland security this past November, Wolf has gone further than any of his predecessors to thwart immigration and to deport foreign-born residents, with little regard for law or process. Now, though, he has extended that approach to sending his federal deportation force against American citizens exercising their First Amendment rights, as footage emerged last week of unmarked forces under Wolf’s command abducting protesters off of the streets of Portland, Oregon.

Wolf is perhaps the perfect person to lead this particular dystopian innovation of the Trump presidency, having previously authored an infamous memo advocating for a short-lived but horrific policy of “separating family units” to deter undocumented immigration. Wolf has graduated from advocating kidnapping children from their parents at the border to kidnapping grown adults in American streets.

In video taken last week, unidentified federal officers in paramilitary uniforms in Portland chased down a protester, captured him, and placed him in an unmarked van. Subsequent reporting established that this jump-out squad was a U.S. Customs and Border Protection unit. Similar abductions have reportedly happened on multiple occasions, and on Monday the president bragged that these federal officers had “grabbed” protesters and placed “a lot of people in jail,” and he threatened to bring “more federal law enforcement” to “cities run by liberal Democrats.” It was further reported on Monday that 150 such agents from the Department of Homeland Security and under Wolf’s command would be deploying to Chicago in the coming days.

These roving squads operate without giving their names or badge numbers, so Wolf has served as the face of Trump’s new secret police program, touring a federal courthouse in Portland last week, outside of which his federal agents would tear-gas moms and other peaceful protesters. Or, as Wolf declared in a since-deleted tweet last week along with a photo of him speaking to these secret paramilitary agents: “Our men and women in uniform are patriots. We will never surrender to violent extremists on my watch.”

Wolf continued his publicity tour on Monday, telling Fox & Friends that agents were there to protect federal facilities from “violent anarchists and extremists.”

“What we’re not going to do is allow them to attack a courthouse and then simply step across the street onto city property and say, ‘You can’t touch me.’ That’s not how this works,” Wolf said, apparently describing the logic behind the abductions. “Almost all of our activity has taken place in the one, two, or three blocks around that courthouse and will continue to do so.”

Multiple parts of the Bill of Rights bar unidentified federal agents from conducting secret abductions and tear-gassing peaceful protesting moms. While Wolf has attempted to use a bizarre and narrow legal interpretation to justify these clearly unlawful practices, he and his roving paramilitaries have already been sued by the ACLU as well as Oregon’s attorney general.

Still, the fact that kidnappings conducted by federal agents are plainly immoral and unlawful has never stopped Wolf from suggesting them before. While serving in a previous role in the Department of Homeland Security in December 2017, Wolf drafted a memo of immigration policy recommendations that included “separate family units.” Wolf’s plan was to “announce that DHS is considering separating family units, placing the adults in detention and placing minors under the age of 18 in the custody of [the Department of Homeland Security] as unaccompanied alien children.” The plan, which had already been piloted in Texas, was put into effect that April, and ultimately thousands of children were illegally separated from their parents before a federal judge declared the program was “brutal, offensive, and fails to comport with traditional notions of fair play and decency” and was a clear violation of the “constitutional right to family integrity.”

Wolf does not specialize in extrajudicial detentions alone. Some other dubious actions he has taken since rising from a lower-level DHS apparatchik to the head of the sprawling 240,000-person agency include the following:

• Earlier this month, Wolf wrote a paean to the federal role of statue protection in the Federalist that served as a preview of his Portland tactics. As he wrote, DHS was “deploying special units to defend our national treasures from rioters” and would “leverage every tool and authority in our arsenal to make sure these landmarks remain intact.” (While his agencies were not reported to have been involved in Trump’s violent assault on pastors and other peaceful protesters in D.C.’s Lafayette Square last month, Wolf did praise the actions in the name of protecting statues.)

• After the protests against systemic racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, Wolf told ABC’s This Week that “I do not think that we have a systemic racism problem with law enforcement officers across this country.” This, of course, ignored disparities in police violence against Black people, but also the violently racist Facebook board that nearly 10,000 members of Wolf’s Border Patrol were last year exposed as having taken part in.

• After the Supreme Court ruled that his department’s effort to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections for Dreamers were unlawful, Wolf accused the court of issuing a ruling that “usurps the clear authority of the Executive Branch to end unlawful programs” and threatened to find a way to “end” the “unlawful program.” Doing so would subject hundreds of thousands of former childhood arrivals with deportation from the only home they’ve known.

• Wolf has used the pandemic as pretext to significantly curtail immigration to the United States and begin quickly expelling en masse asylum-seekers who had previously been given the opportunity to fully adjudicate their claims while in the United States. He also led an aborted effort to rescind visas from foreign students at universities that are opting to move to online-only classes for the safety of students and faculty.

• Throughout February, Wolf repeatedly assured the American people that the “overall coronavirus threat to the American public remains low.” As late as Feb. 24, he was repeating this line on Twitter. The day after that, during Senate testimony, Wolf couldn’t answer basic questions from Republican Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana about the coronavirus and its spread. He further compared the death toll from COVID-19 to that of the flu and downplayed the effects of the disease that has since killed more than 140,000 people in this country, suggesting falsely that a vaccine would be available in “several months.”

• Wolf was in charge of DHS in March when Trump’s abrupt announcement of his European travel ban resulted in catastrophic bunched waits in airport security lines at the height of the initial spread of COVID-19.

• Prior to international travel being shut down indefinitely throughout the United States because of the administration’s incompetence, Wolf attempted to block New York residents from applying for TSA Precheck in apparent retaliation for some of the state’s friendlier policies toward undocumented immigrants.

How Long It Has Been Going On: Wolf started his career in the federal bureaucracy with a job in George W. Bush’s Transportation Security Administration bureaucracy at the start of the 2000s. He then became a high-paid lobbyist for the airline industry and other organizations for a more than a decade, before returning to government at the start of the Trump administration with a job as the TSA chief of staff.

Wolf moved around in the Department of Homeland Security in lower-level roles, including as former Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen’s chief of staff, before being appointed to his first Senate-confirmed job as under secretary for strategy, policy and plans. He worked for Nielsen at a time when she repeatedly lied to the public and to Congress about the existence of the family separation policy that Wolf had recommended to her on paper.

During Wolf’s under secretary confirmation process last year, he himself lied to Congress about his role in family separation, telling Nevada Sen. Jacky Rosen that he only became aware of the policy in April 2018. He had actually written a memo recommending the policy in December 2017 and had been in multiple meetings throughout the spring of 2018 with Stephen Miller and others, listed on the official calendar as dealing with “ending catch and release,” “the issue of family separation,” and “Separating Children and Families.”

Still, he secured Senate approval for his position. When the previous acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, left the department in November, that left Wolf as one of the few available officials with the Senate-confirmed status required for Trump to legally install him in the top post.

What Would Normally Happen: Prior to this administration and after the end of slavery in this country, it’s hard to think of a government official who has not once but twice authorized federal law enforcement agents to carry out kidnapping programs in the interior of the United States. Beyond what he’s done with his position, the way he holds the job remains deeply irregular. If a previous president had used a revolving collection of acting officials to avoid Senate confirmation hearings for a Cabinet secretary, it would have at least drawn scrutiny from Congress. For comparison, when it became clear that the Senate would refuse to approve Elizabeth Warren as head of the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, President Barack Obama nominated someone else rather than leaving her to run the bureau as an unconfirmed special adviser. Trump has no such qualms about his revolving door of acting appointments, and nobody shows any intention of stopping him.

What Democrats Have Done: So far, the opposition party has complained a little, but not much, about Homeland Security forces going after the president’s political opponents, or Wolf’s other excesses. Last week, Rep. Veronica Escobar called for Wolf’s resignation over the Portland abductions. Other House Democrats have sent a letter requesting that he and other Cabinet officials testify about Trump’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests in Lafayette Square. They have not issued subpoenas, though, and appear unlikely to secure Wolf’s testimony before the election.

What Is Likely to Be Done: Democrats could attempt to issue subpoenas and exercise inherent contempt if officials refuse to testify. They could open an impeachment inquiry and call witnesses to family separation and to the Portland abductions. They could also wait until Nov. 3 in the hope that Joe Biden’s steady but not earth-shattering polling lead carries through the election and Trump and cronies like Wolf are removed from office by voters. They are clearly crossing their fingers and taking the last course.

How Removable This Stuff Is: Even before Portland, Wolf deserved to be tried criminally for advising the kidnapping of thousands of children from their parents with no plan to return them and for perjuring himself in front of Congress about those kidnappings. The best-case scenario at this point is that he doesn’t kidnap many more immigrant children or Americans before Trump is removed from office next year. 10 out of 10.