Appointments of performing Homeland Safety chief and prime aide are invalid, congressional watchdog says

Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), speaks during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020.

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. government watchdog concluded Friday that the top two officials at the Department of Homeland Security were improperly appointed following a slew of hasty resignations at the federal agency.

The Government Accountability Office, or GAO, found that the appointments of Chad Wolf, acting secretary of Homeland Security, and Ken Cuccinelli, acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, did not follow processes outlined in the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. Therefore, the watchdog ruled, the appointments are invalid.

The Vacancies Reform Act allows for the temporary filling of vacant agency positions that require presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.

Because the department did not follow the proper chain of succession following the resignation of Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in 2019, officials “who assumed their positions under such amendments, including Chad Wolf and Kenneth Cuccinelli, were named by reference to an invalid order of succession,” according to the GAO’s report.

The GAO, which conducted the investigation at the behest of lawmakers, added in its 12-page decision that it was referring its conclusions to the Department of Homeland Security inspector general. The conclusion does not have the force of law, however.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution about “anarchist violence” in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill August 04, 2020 in Washington, DC.

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In a statement on the heels of the GAO report, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer called on Wolf and Cuccinelli to “immediately step down from their illegal roles” and urged the DHS IG to launch an investigation of every decision made during their tenures.

“President Trump’s efforts to install political sycophants to implement his extreme policies in an end run around the law and Senate have finally caught up with him,” Schumer said.

A DHS spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement to CNBC that the department “wholeheartedly disagrees with the GAO’s baseless report.” The spokesperson added that DHS will issue a formal response shortly.

The White House did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment.

The latest development comes as Wolf and Cuccinelli face scrutiny over the Department of Homeland Security’s handling of protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for about eight minutes. The officer was charged with murder. An independent autopsy found that asphyxiation was the cause of Floyd’s death.

Protests in U.S. cities, including Portland, Oregon, have at times led to arson, looting and violent clashes with federal officers.

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