Once confirmed for the undersecretary role, Wolf could be placed in the top job at DHS, the people said, allowing the White House to install him through what essentially amounts to a bank shot.
The unusual plan is the latest wrinkle in the Trump administration’s efforts to replace outgoing acting secretary Kevin McAleenan, who was supposed to step down at the end of October after submitting his resignation on Oct. 11. McAleenan served for more than six months in the role without a nomination and has stayed on to allow for a smooth transition. DHS is the country’s third-largest federal agency, with 240,000 employees and a $50 billion budget.
Trump mistakenly told reporters last week that Wolf already was the acting secretary at DHS. “I put in a very good man, he’s highly respected, and he’s acting right now — we’ll see where that goes,” Trump said.
“I like ‘acting,’ ” added Trump, who has been criticized by members of both parties for leaving nearly all of the top jobs at DHS unfilled or with leaders in temporary, acting roles. “It gives you great, great flexibility.”
White House officials later corrected Trump’s statement, and said McAleenan remains in the job.
White House officials say Wolf is not Trump’s permanent pick for DHS secretary. Wolf, 43, was chief of staff to Kirstjen Nielsen before Trump removed her in April. He worked at the lobbying and consulting firm Wexler & Walker from 2005 to 2017, after working at the Transportation Security Administration.
If the Senate confirms Wolf, he could be sworn in as acting secretary shortly after, though DHS would have to alter its rules for order of succession to put the undersecretary for strategy, policy and plans ahead of other confirmed officials, including TSA administrator David Pekoske.
Pekoske, the acting deputy DHS secretary, did not want the acting secretary job, and has indicated he would prefer to go back to running TSA.
One senior administration official who described the transition plan said it is important for Wolf to be confirmed before taking over at DHS as a matter of “good governance.”
Some immigration hard-liners have criticized Trump for installing Wolf, even temporarily, citing his past lobbying work on behalf of Indian companies seeking employment visas.
Wolf is the favored pick of senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller, who has pushed for aggressive tactics to reduce migration to the United States. As Nielsen’s chief of staff, Wolf had a central role in the failed “zero tolerance” prosecution initiative last year that led to the separation of more than 2,700 migrant children from their parents.
Among the first tasks potentially awaiting Wolf is the implementation of a controversial accord that would allow the United States to send asylum seekers at the U.S. border to Guatemala. DHS was expecting to implement the agreement last week, but the State Department and the Justice Department have not given final approval.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.