Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad F. Wolf said Thursday he has stepped down and that the chief of the Federal Emergency Management Agency will take over his duties as the department prepares for the presidential inauguration.
In a letter to employees, Mr. Wolf said “recent events” forced his hand, including ongoing challenges to whether he was ever properly installed as secretary in the first place. His department also has been challenged over whether it did enough to warn of last week’s attack on Congress.
Mr. Wolf said he had hoped to serve until the end of the Trump administration next week in order to ensure a transition to President-elect Joseph R. Biden, but he said that became untenable.
“The 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,” Mr. Wolf wrote.
Just hours earlier, flexing his secretary’s powers, he had declared an early beginning to the special national security status surrounding the presidential inauguration. Democrats questioned the timing of his move, saying his legal position has been in doubt for some time.
“He has chosen to resign during a time of national crisis and when domestic terrorists may be planning additional attacks on our government,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie G. Thompson, Mississippi Democrat. “Unlike others, he is apparently not leaving the Trump administration on principle.”
Mr. Wolf was named acting secretary in late 2019, at the end of a long string of personnel moves that saw President Trump upend the entire department.
His status as secretary has been in question ever since, and several courts have ruled in recent months that he is illegally serving. They have invalidated a series of his decisions, including his attempt to rewrite the DACA program and an overhaul of the asylum system.
Mr. Wolf also seemed to run afoul of the White House last week when he issued a statement condemning “some supporters of the president” for the Jan. 6 attack on Congress.
Hours after that statement, the White House announced Mr. Trump was withdrawing Mr. Wolf’s nomination to be secretary — a nomination it had reaffirmed just four days earlier, but which had been stalled on Capitol Hill for months. His time in office was marked by last summer’s clashes between racial justice demonstrators and federal agents and officers from Portland, Oregon, to the District of Columbia, and by allegations he tried to water down a report about the dangers of white supremacist terrorism.
That report was issued this fall with a stark warning about white supremacists.
The legal questions surrounding Mr. Wolf stem from Mr. Trump’s ouster of one of his predecessors.
In spring 2019, facing a rising border crisis, then-Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned, and installed Mr. Trump’s pick, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, as her replacement.
But several courts have ruled that under the rules of succession the job should have gone to someone else.
Mr. McAleenan later wrote new rules of succession that, when he left in late 2019, allowed Mr. Wolf to become acting secretary. But courts have ruled that if Mr. McAleenan wasn’t properly serving, his rewrite was illegal, so Mr. Wolf’s ascension is illegal.
That same judgment also applies to acting Deputy Secretary Ken Cuccinelli, who was skipped over in Monday’s announcement designating FEMA administrator Pete Gaynor as the new acting secretary. Mr. Thompson said if Mr. Wolf’s resignation is an admission he was not properly installed, then Mr. Cuccinelli should also resign.
Even as it was fighting the court rulings, the administration had arranged to have Mr. Gaynor reaffirm Mr. Wolf’s decisions and try to reaffirm Mr. Wolf’s position as acting secretary. But a judge ruled that a crude attempt to circumvent the law.
Now Mr. Gaynor, as unquestioned acting secretary, will face a decision of how many of Mr. Wolf’s directives he can reaffirm once again.