“Naturalization ceremonies are what the department does,” Wolf replied. “We do hundreds if not thousands of them every year. I’ve participated in several of them, not only with the president, with the vice president. So it’s absolutely a legitimate role for the department to do.
“Again, we do them across the nation,” Wolf continued. “I had — I did one in Denver the day after on Wednesday of this, this past week. And we’ll continue to do that. That was an official event at the White House. It was uploaded to a public YouTube channel. Anyone, any individual organization or political party can pull down that video and do with it as they wish. So again, it was completely legitimate —”
“Respectfully, that was not my question,” he said. “My question was: Did you know when you took part in that ceremony that it was going to be used that night at the Republican convention?”
“No, what I knew is, again, participating in a naturalization ceremony,” Wolf replied. “We had a number of [U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services] employees there, as they do every naturalization ceremony, making sure that that ceremony goes off without a hitch.”
That no — blurred into the phrase that followed — is hard to believe as a denial. Perhaps Wolf is so used to defending President Trump that he instinctively transitioned from Karl’s initial question into broad assertions about why the event didn’t violate legal prohibitions against using government resources for political campaigning. Or perhaps he was using a bit of a loophole that Karl provided: The naturalization ceremony appears to have been held Monday (based on Trump’s wearing the same outfit for the ceremony as he did during a “surprise” appearance that first day of the convention in North Carolina), while the video didn’t air until Tuesday. Or perhaps Wolf lied to Karl. Or, in what is probably the least likely possibility, perhaps he was somehow unaware of why he was there.
There's no real question that Trump understood that the event was designed to be part of the convention.
Trump has twice held naturalization ceremonies at the White House. The first was on Jan. 19, 2019, when Trump invited five prospective citizens to the Oval Office to oversee their being sworn in. (One of those five later spoke to The Washington Post about the experience.) Shortly after that event, Trump gave a speech about immigration and the need for a wall on the border with Mexico.
“Just a short time ago, I had the honor of presiding over the swearing-in of five new great American citizens,” the speech began. “It was a beautiful ceremony and a moving reminder of our nation’s proud history of welcoming legal immigrants from all over the world into our national family."
It didn't take long to transition to the “however” part of his speech.
Last week, the same thing: five new citizens, right before Trump hoped to make a political point. This event, though, was held in the White House’s Great Hall, perhaps in an effort to argue that the event didn’t violate the Hatch Act’s prohibitions against using government resources for campaigning, by using a part of the executive residence that isn’t normally used for official duties.
It wasn’t on Trump’s schedule, nor did the Department of Homeland Security announce that Wolf would attend the ceremony. Wolf is active on Twitter, but he never shared any information about the event before it aired at the Republican National Convention. While his claim about the event being posted to YouTube before it was shown at the convention was true, the window was small. The video was posted to YouTube at 5:41 p.m. Eastern, according to metadata associated with the upload. The program began less than three hours later.
Then there were Wolf's comments themselves.
“Mr. President, I want to again commend you for your dedication to the rule of law and for restoring integrity to our immigration system,” he said, as he handed the lectern to Trump. “Thank you for hosting such a patriotic celebration here at the White House today."
A conveniently pithy summation of the president's political position.
Why does it matter whether Wolf was aware that he was participating in an event intended to bolster Trump’s candidacy?
First, there are those pesky legal issues. The Homeland Security House Committee has already written a letter asking the Office of Special Counsel to determine whether Wolf might have violated legal prohibitions against using his position to boost Trump’s campaign.
“Mr. Wolf’s participation appears to constitute engaging in political activity while acting in an official capacity,” the letter reads. “It also sets a bad example for the Department’s 240,000 employees who are required to comply with the Hatch Act."
Second, a few hours before the ceremony aired during the second night of the convention, Trump announced that he was nominating Wolf to fill the position which he’s now occupying on an acting basis. Trump’s support of Wolf’s performance in the role is not a new development, but the proposed promotion’s proximity to Wolf’s appearance in support of Trump’s reelection is noteworthy.
That nomination, incidentally, might resolve a lingering problem for Wolf: The Government Accountability Office determined this month that Wolf and another top DHS official were not legally holding their positions. When Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen resigned in early 2019 — a few months after she was involved in Trump’s Oval Office naturalization ceremony — subsequent appointments to lead the department, including Wolf’s, violated the Vacancies Reform Act, according to the GAO.
Wolf’s participation the event at the White House was, according to Wolf, part of his duties as the head of the department. The DHS is also responsible for things like the Federal Emergency Management Administration, which spent last week preparing for the arrival of Hurricane Laura on the Gulf Coast. Wolf’s Twitter feed was heavily focused on the approaching storms last week, and he had participated in a briefing at FEMA on Tuesday. But he also found time for that quiet, unannounced stop at the White House.
Again, maybe Wolf didn’t know that the naturalization ceremony would be used at the Republican convention. The immigrants themselves apparently didn’t. But the body of evidence suggests both that he did and that he was uninterested in making that clear to ABC’s Karl. Denying that awareness might offer some protection from questions about the Hatch Act, but it raises a number of additional questions.
One, for example: How much confidence might the American public have in the head of the Department of Homeland Security if he’s willing to violate the law to boost Trump’s reelection? How much confidence might they have if he’s willing to mislead reporters about why he does what he does?