WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump told reporters Friday evening that Chad Wolf is the new acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, but it was unclear whether a formal appointment had occurred, extending confusion about who would step in to fill one of the country’s most crucial national security posts.
After reporters asked Trump about rumors he was planning to place Wolf in charge of DHS, Trump said, "Well he's right now acting and we'll see what happens."
But no transition has taken place yet, according to two senior administration officials. Kevin McAleenan, the current acting DHS secretary, remains on the job, they said. McAleenan is scheduled to stay in the role at least through early next week, according to one of the senior administration officials, who was baffled by Trump's statement.
Hogan Gidley, a White House spokesman, later told reporters later that McAleenan would remain in the acting secretary role until Veteran's Day, and Wolf will take over after that.
Wolf, the acting undersecretary for policy at DHS, is a former lobbyist who was the chief of staff to DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen until her ouster in April.
A White House official said Trump had no plans to nominate Wolf to the job permanently. Still, Wolf could remain on the job for an extended period of time, as the White House has left nearly all of the top leadership jobs at DHS with vacancies or interim chiefs.
McAleenan has held the job nearly seven months without a nomination from the White House, submitting his resignation to Trump on Oct. 11. McAleenan's last day was supposed to be Friday, but he said he agreed to remain on the job longer "to ensure a smooth transition."
Wolf would be the fifth person to occupy the secretary job at DHS under Trump, an unusually high degree of leadership turnover for a department whose founding goal was to project stability and safeguard the country from another 9/11-style terrorist attack.
Trump spoke to Wolf about the job last month in a phone call, but senior administration officials say the White House delayed the pick as it explored potential ways to install immigration hawk Ken Cuccinelli, the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Legal counselors then told the White House that Cuccinelli was not eligible for the position under the Vacancies Reform Act, and senior GOP senators who dislike the former Virginia attorney general also said publicly they would not vote to confirm him.
That left Trump with few other options besides Wolf, a mild-mannered, managerial figure who has kept a low public profile through the first three years of the Trump presidency.
Trump has very little rapport with Wolf personally but needed to pick someone because the job was open and the White House has struggled to find other plausible candidates who want to run DHS.
He still wants someone "like Cuccinelli . . . because he has a very defined idea of what that job should be," said the White House official, who was not authorized to discuss personnel moves and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
As chief of staff to Nielsen, Wolf played a central role in the "zero tolerance" border crackdown that led to the separation of nearly 3,000 migrant children from their parents.
Still, immigration hard-liners close to the president urged him not to pick Wolf, even for a temporary position, grumbling about Wolf's lobbying work for Indian companies seeking employment visas.
Wolf, 43, began his DHS career at the Transportation Security Administration, then joined the lobbying and public relations firm Wexler & Walker, where he worked from 2005 to 2017.
In February, Trump picked Wolf to be the first undersecretary of DHS' Office of Strategy, Policy and Plans, but the Senate has yet to confirm him, and the president's announcement also leaves his nomination in doubt.
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The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.