The acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, may not have lawful authority to be in the role he’s currently using to fight what he would like you to believe is an apocalyptic battle against the forces of evil: Antiracist protesters, the American Civil Liberties Union, and investigative journalists.
“After 80+ straight nights of violence, Portland clearly remains a city in crisis,” Wolf said in his latest melodramatic tweet on Thursday. That day, a federal judge extended an order barring federal officers from using force, threats and dispersal orders against journalists and legal observers documenting demonstrations in Portland. Earlier in the month, the ACLU called to dismantle DHS after its agents tear-gassed mostly peaceful protesters and snatched them off the streets in unmarked vans. Wolf criticized the ACLU in Newsweek and doubled down on his dystopian narrative: “Americans across the country have watched in horror as lawless criminals sack city after city,” he wrote.
Before the specters of the ACLU and Black Lives Matter haunted Wolf, there was Buzzfeed’s Hamed Aleaziz, one of the nation’s top immigration reporters. Last month, he published an investigation showing many DHS employees were worried the show of force in Portland could harm their broader homeland security mission. Local leaders had asked DHS agents to leave the city after they escalated conflicts in the street. One DHS employee called their deployment “disturbing.” Another said it was “blatantly unconstitutional.” “Deep State alive,” Wolf grumbled in an email about Aleaziz’s investigation. “He is not a real journalist.” Aleaziz, who is very much a real journalist, obtained a copy of that email and tweeted it out. It wasn’t the first time Wolf took a break from his important duties to air grievances about journalists.
On August 10, Wolf sent a barrage of unsolicited text messages in response to an article I published in The Nation to let me know that I was not a real journalist. My piece was about how Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller turned DHS into a political weapon for Trump. “I believed you to be unbiased—an actual reporter. I was wrong. I want [sic] make that mistake again,” Wolf said in a string of texts with a litany of complaints of inaccuracies in my piece (one of which I concluded was fair, and wrote a correction).
Each of his messages began with “OTR,” shorthand for “off the record.” As Wolf well knows, “OTR” does not function like a spell; unsolicited quotes from public figures are fair game, according to the standards that govern journalistic ethics. I reminded Wolf of this after he insisted his messages were off the record. “We are deciding how to officially respond,” he wrote.
No official response has come. Wolf became distracted, I suppose, by a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report concluding four days later that he is in his position illegally. Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary, is also in his post illegally, per the GAO. When Cuccinelli saw Pulitzer-winning Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole defend Aleaziz’s investigative reporting on Twitter, he decided to get in on the brawl. “Ms. O’Toole, if you wouldn’t mind answering a somewhat different question: do you think objectivity is part of being a journalist?” He tagged her, to make sure she saw it.
It is not surprising that illegal DHS leaders are taking time out of their days to partake in online trolling and anger-texting. Most top positions at DHS are vacant or held by people in acting capacity, in other words, political tools for Trump. As I show in my book Hatemonger, from Day One in the White House, Trump’s senior adviser Miller steamrolled officials into submission, narrowing the focus of DHS—with its mandate to protect Americans from terrorism, cyberwarfare, pandemics and more—into a tool laser-focused on his obsession: keeping out families from Latin America and Africa.
Wolf’s Twitter photo reflects this narrowed focus. The former lobbyist wears designer stubble and gazes out at the U.S.-Mexico border wall, reflected on his aviator sunglasses in a helicopter. He looks like an actor playing a part in a film, a hybrid of Wild Wild West and Independence Day.
During Wolf’s first official visit to the border last November, he endorsed a fraudulent border wall scheme led by Steve Bannon and others who were arrested this month on charges of defrauding the project’s donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I welcome all that want to be part of the solution,” Wolf said at the time.
“Under Trump, the Department of Homeland Security has become the Department of Border Enforcement,” David Lapan, a former DHS official in the Trump administration and a retired Marine colonel, told me for my book.
Several former and current Homeland Security officials said the administration’s tunnel vision for photo ops and limiting immigration has left America more vulnerable to real threats. Miles Taylor, a former chief of staff at DHS, published an op-ed in the Washington Post this month confirming this, saying DHS has become “a tool for his [Trump’s] political benefit” and “dangerously chaotic.”
While Wolf is polishing breathless op-eds, venting at journalists on his phone, or attacking Trump’s critics on Fox News in overwrought pronouncements, right-wing extremists are plotting civil war, imagining themselves on a mission to save the United States, as Wolf and Miller do. Right-wing extremists have been responsible for a majority of terrorist attacks and plots in the U.S. since the 1990s, and more than 90 percent of attacks and plots between January 1 and May 8 of this year.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the field with DHS agents and officers who have no interest in Wolf’s political theatre or Cuccinelli’s habit of retweeting the right-wing provocateur Andy Ngo, who has been repeatedly accused of provoking violence. Many believe in the importance of the department’s whole mission. And there are violent left-wing protesters. But they’re not the majority, as Wolf would like you to believe.
I’ve covered the excesses of left-wing radicals. When an exodus of Central Americans arrived in late 2018 and early 2019, activists from the U.S.-based group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) distributed flyers urging them to storm the border, as I reported in Hatemonger. When some families did approach the border en masse, they were tear-gassed, and the spectacle was weaponized by Trump to conjure an “invasion.”
The left-wing activists saw themselves as saviors—playing a central role in a grand drama where they could defeat Trump with a show of power using families as their pawns. In the end, they damaged the cause of the families. Right-wing militias gathered at the border, fantasizing about filling the bodies of “invaders” with bullets.
Now, DHS is led by right-wing radicals whose excesses are inflicting damage to their own cause. Wolf is using agents and officers as pawns in a dangerous game that distracts from real threats, such as the coronavirus, and breathes life into extremism. But Wolf recently told Fox: “We’re not going to abdicate our mission.”