December 1, 2020

Homeland Security Turns to Defending Statues Amid Questions Over Priorities

WASHINGTON — When he first took office, President Trump repurposed the Department of Homeland Security to focus on illegal immigration and border security.

As his re-election campaign turned to a “law and order” theme, the department’s border agents, immigration officers and drones were sent to surveil cities crowded with anti-racism protesters.

Then, in the past few weeks, with the commander in chief striking up a divisive defense of statues and monuments, the department redeployed some of its officers again, this time to guard granite and steel sculptures and property in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; and Washington, D.C.

And on each move, the president has found the warm embrace of Chad F. Wolf, his acting homeland security secretary. Past homeland security leaders under Mr. Trump, like Kirstjen Nielsen and Kevin K. McAleenan, at times clashed with the White House on policy or were seen as insufficiently zealous in carrying out orders. But Mr. Wolf and other current leaders have embraced their assignments with enthusiasm.

That has led former Department of Homeland Security officials from both parties to fear that a department created from the ashes of Sept. 11, 2001, to guard against terrorism has been transformed into an engine of Mr. Trump’s political whims.

“The violent mob is not worthy of even polishing Washington’s statue, let alone desecrating it,” Mr. Wolf wrote in an opinion article published on July 3 on the pro-Trump website The Federalist after he had deployed forces to guard statues.

Alexei Woltornist, a spokesman for the department, said Mr. Wolf was rightly carrying out the president’s wishes.

“American ideals are under attack,” Mr. Woltornist said. “President Trump is taking strong action to restore order. Acting Secretary Wolf is committed to using all D.H.S. authorities and resources to implement President Trump’s agenda.”

But the use of homeland security resources as firepower in Mr. Trump’s culture wars has prompted former department officials to question the priorities of a federal agency still tasked with responding to national emergencies. Health workers are pleading for protective gear during a pandemic; hurricane season is in full swing; and hackers threaten an extraordinary U.S. election unfolding during the worst public health crisis in a century.

Yet, at least rhetorically, the department is worried about statues, said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. “With a pandemic, police violence, hurricanes and an election susceptible to foreign influence,” she said, “their priorities seem exceptionally misplaced.”

ImageChad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of homeland security, has recently won praise from President Trump.
Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Early in the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security became the center of the anti-immigration agenda that Mr. Trump rode to victory in 2016, dedicating billions of dollars to construct his border wall and putting in place a web of policies to seal off American borders to refugees and asylum seekers.

But the pivot to monument protection and the policing of protesters has taken the agency far from any of its core functions, officials said.

After Mr. Trump signed an executive order to prosecute people who damage federal monuments or statues, Mr. Wolf readied 2,000 security personnel to guard statues and other federal property from what he described as the “lawlessness sweeping our nation.”

While the president delivered hot-button speeches last weekend at Mount Rushmore and in Washington, the Department of Homeland Security dispatched 200 of the 2,000 monument guardians — which included Border Patrol agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, Coast Guard personnel and air marshals — to back up the Federal Protective Service, an agency already responsible for protecting federal property, according to agency officials.

The department declined to provide a full list of the protected properties, but it did name the National Mall and the federal courthouse in Portland, as well as Gettysburg National Military Park, where armed right-wing militia members also showed up to “guard” statues.

While the deployment to the federal properties represents a marginal number of homeland security officials, it has become emblematic of the way leadership is directing the agency.

The president has been so pleased that he broke from his remarks during a joint appearance with Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, on Wednesday to say, “What a great job you’re doing, Chad.”

The Department of Homeland Security oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, in addition to responding to natural disasters, is playing a crucial role in the nation’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The department is also tasked with protecting the United States from computer and terrorism threats. It oversees border and immigration enforcement agencies, and includes the legal immigration agency, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is preparing to furlough 70 percent of its work force in response to a plummeting budget.

Credit…Randy Hoeft/The Yuma Sun, via Associated Press

But after so many secretaries, Mr. Wolf has proved adept at turning Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric into concrete actions.

“This is exactly what the president has wanted,” said David Lapan, a former spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, “putting people in positions that will be completely beholden to him and do whatever he wants, whether or not it’s in the best interests of the agencies they’ve been tasked to lead.”

Early this year, two days after the president used his State of the Union address to criticize so-called sanctuary cities, Mr. Wolf surprised the public — and some of his high-ranking Customs and Border Protection officials — when he barred New Yorkers from enrolling in programs that allowed travelers to speed through borders and airport lines.

The move was meant to pressure the New York state government to change a law that prevented homeland security agencies from gaining access to the Department of Motor Vehicles’s database records and that provided driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The Department of Homeland Security has also increased the pace of lawsuits against private property owners in South Texas to speed up construction of Mr. Trump’s border wall before the election.

The president has effectively sealed the border to asylum seekers, most recently with a plan that would allow asylum officers to deny protection to nearly every migrant by citing any disease outbreak as a public health emergency.

And now Mr. Wolf has turned his attention to American citizens.

“Any city that is having increases in violence, is burning, is having the rioting and looting, it’s by choice at this point,” Mr. Wolf said this week on “Fox & Friends.” “Those local elected officials are making a choice to keep their cities very unsafe and dangerous.”

His department is responsible for protecting critical infrastructure, usually considered to be power grids and river dams but also iconic national monuments like the Statue of Liberty. In 2010, the Departments of Homeland Security and Interior jointly outlined protection plans for national heritage sites, not against protesters but against “the consequences of terrorist attacks and other natural and man-made hazards.”

Suzanne Spaulding, an under secretary for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure in the Obama administration, said she was concerned for the department’s reputation.

“D.H.S. operates on the basis of trust, and I’m worried,” Ms. Spaulding said. “Already many of us were very concerned about sustaining public support for D.H.S. and its broad missions.”

Credit…Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA, via Shutterstock

Mr. Wolf’s task force to protect “historic monuments, memorials, statues and federal facilities” has already started an inquiry at the House Homeland Security Committee.

“I would like to understand why Federal Protective Service (F.P.S.) personnel are not adequate to carry out the task of protecting federal property,” Representative Bennie Thompson, Democrat of Mississippi and the committee’s chairman, wrote in a letter to Mr. Wolf.

John Cohen, who served as an acting under secretary for intelligence in the Obama administration and as a senior adviser at the agency in the Bush administration, worried that the divisive language from the agency’s leadership would result in long-term harm to the agency’s relations with local politicians and law enforcement agencies.

The acting deputy secretary of homeland security, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, seemed to be actively antagonizing New York leaders with recent posts on Twitter trying to lure New York City police officers to the department.

“Think about it,” Mr. Cuccinelli said. “Given that your mayor and city council don’t appreciate you!”

“If the department is viewed by the public as simply being a political tool, then the department will not have the support that’s critical to being effective at its mission,” Mr. Cohen said. “It has been a real challenge under this administration for those serving as secretary to maintain that balance.”

Before Mr. Wolf, some homeland security leaders struggled with that balance, even those who carried out Mr. Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy that separated thousands of migrant children from their families. Ms. Nielsen prompted the president’s ire when she attended a cybersecurity conference in Europe while Mr. Trump’s focus was on rising migrant crossings at the border.

Mr. McAleenan pushed back against nationwide ICE raids and publicly expressed frustration with the rhetoric of Trump political appointees at the agency before he resigned.

Mr. Wolf, in contrast, has faithfully mirrored Mr. Trump. On Wednesday, he thanked the president of Mexico for visiting the Lincoln Memorial, tweeting, “There are a lot of us in America who still want to protect these monuments to freedom for all.”

But before praising the foreign leader, he took aim at Mr. Trump’s domestic opponents.

“Anarchists and violent opportunists thrive when misguided politicians put the interests of criminals ahead of our own citizens,” Mr. Wolf tweeted, referring to Democratic champions of defunding ICE and the Border Patrol. “It’s time to stop playing politics with law enforcement.”