Politico reported on Tuesday that Chad Wolf — who served as the chief of staff to the secretary of homeland security while the department was systematically separating children from their families and who went on to become acting secretary as President Trump was increasingly weaponizing DHS for his political aims— is starting a D.C. consulting firm along with a few of his former DHS colleagues.
The path from government service to lucrative consulting gigs is well-traveled. In Wolf’s case, it’s a return; he lobbied DHS on behalf of a number of private companies before joining the department in 2017. During Wolf’s years at DHS, his former clients raked in $160 million in DHS contracts, according to CNBC.
But as Wolf attempts to reenter the world of high-powered government influence, he’ll likely have to answer questions about the role he played in implementing some of the Trump administration’s cruelest and most undemocratic policies.
In a September 2020 congressional hearing, Wolf denied that he helped to develop the policy that led to the separation of thousands of migrant families, saying that it “was not my portfolio” and “was not my issue set at that time.” Yet documents that American Oversight obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, as well as media reports and government investigations, show that Wolf was involved in high-level discussions of the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy beginning months before it was implemented at a large scale.
In December 2017, Wolf, then serving as chief of staff to Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, sent Justice Department official Gene Hamilton, a key player in the development of the family separation policy, a list of potential immigration policy options, including the idea to “separate family units.” Later in the month, he helped prepare Nielsen for a conversation with then-White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, giving her a list of topics to discuss with Kelly that included “Border Surge Policy Options–Separate Families.”
In the following months, documents obtained by American Oversight show that Wolf was included in a number of discussions about the development of the family separation policy and how to communicate about it to the public.
In May 2018, DHS and the Justice Department officially implemented the policy that led to large-scale separation of migrant families, although the Trump administration had been ramping up family separations throughout the previous year. The next month, as the public outcry over family separations grew, Wolf advised an external affairs official on how to paint a sunnier picture of separations for members of Congress who were visiting DHS facilities, including by focusing on the “process to reunify” families.
This was a misleading message. As the DHS Inspector General later found, DHS was unprepared to implement the family separation policy and “struggled to identify, track, and reunify families.” More than two years later, court documents revealed that the government had still failed to locate the families of 666 children whom they had separated from family members. When those ongoing separations were revealed in October 2020, Wolf claimed that the parents had “chosen to separate their children from themselves.”
In April 2019, Nielsen was forced to resign, one of the earliest salvos in a purge, widely linked to White House adviser Stephen Miller, of top DHS leaders who were seen as insufficiently committed to former President Donald Trump’s hardline immigration priorities. Wolf survived, and in November 2019 was named acting secretary of the department.
As secretary, Wolf attempted to downplay his agency’s cooperation with We Build the Wall, the privately run campaign to raise money to pay for the border wall, one of Trump’s top priorities. Records we obtained include email communications from January 2020 between Chad Mizelle, who was then Wolf’s chief of staff, and Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who was general counsel for We Build the Wall, in which Kobach expressed the desire to “rapidly add another mile to the President’s total.” In August 2020, four people involved in We Build the Wall — including former White House strategist Steve Bannon — were arrested and accused of defrauding supporters of the project.
Those same documents also show that both Wolf and Mizelle met with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration organization designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group, soon after assuming their new positions in November 2019. Among several communications is one email in which Mizelle thanked a FAIR representative for having reached out for a meeting, adding, “The Acting Secretary in particular really enjoyed the dialogue.”
While acting secretary, Wolf made his loyalty to Trump clear. During nationwide protests against racial injustice in the summer of 2020, as the former president attempted to bolster his “law and order” persona in advance of the election, DHS under Wolf’s leadership participated in widely criticized shows of force against demonstrators, from using tear gas and rubber bullets to detaining protesters in unmarked vans. A document we obtained via FOIA shows that one DHS component even requested a helicopter “capable of delivering airborne quick reaction force” in response to protests in Washington, DC. In July, Wolf traveled to Portland, Ore., the site of prolonged demonstrations, to denounce the protesters as a “violent mob” — a publicity stunt tacked on to meetings in Las Vegas that we later found cost taxpayers more than $90,000.
Wolf’s DHS also served Trump’s tough-on-crime posturing through its participation in Operation Legend, a Justice Department initiative that sent federal law enforcement officers to major U.S. cities in the summer of 2020, sometimes going against the wishes of local officials. Emails we obtained through a public records request show that DHS rebuffed the governor of Illinois when his office tried to reach out to Wolf prior to the operation’s expansion to Chicago; instead the governor’s office was told that “no surge” in federal officers was taking place.
In the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, Wolf used DHS as a campaign operation for Trump, with top leadership — including Wolf himself — traveling to electoral swing states to announce immigration apprehensions and warn of the consequences of a change in immigration policy. We are investigating how much those trips cost taxpayers, and the Justice Department office that handles allegations of public funds spent on political campaigning has opened a case file on the issue.
In November 2020, a federal judge found Wolf’s appointment to be unlawful, throwing into question the legality of many of the actions he took during his time as acting secretary. But regardless of what becomes of specific policy decisions, Wolf’s legacy of loyalty to Trump — and to the former president’s most undemocratic impulses — remains.
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