Wolf said in a letter to staff at the Department of Homeland Security that he had intended to remain in office until the inauguration of Joe Biden but would instead step down at 11.59pm on Monday night.
His departure, he said, was compelled in part by “recent events” and by court rulings invalidating some of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, citing findings that Wolf was illegally serving in the role.
“I am saddened to take this step, as it was my intention to serve the Department until the end of this Administration,” said Wolf, who had been serving in an acting capacity since November 2019 and was never confirmed by the Senate.
A report by the Government Accountability Office determined that Wolf’s appointment to the role violated the rules of succession and as such he had been serving unlawfully in the role. Judges cited that finding in court rulings to invalidate some of the policy changes enacted by the Trump administration during his tenure.
On Monday, Wolf cited the “ongoing and meritless court rulings regarding the validity of my authority as Acting Secretary” as a reason for stepping down.
“These events and concerns increasingly serve to divert attention and resources away from the important work of the Department in this critical time of a transition of power,” he wrote.
The letter does not explicitly mention last week’s assault on the Capitol, which Wolf described as “tragic and sickening” in a statement on 7 January. In that statement, he also called on Trump to “strongly condemn” the violence that had been carried out in his name and committed to staying in his position to ensure an “orderly transition” to a Biden administration. He is the third cabinet secretary to resign following the attack.
Pete Gaynor, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, will take over as acting homeland security secretary, less than two weeks before the department will help coordinate security for Biden’s inauguration amid heightened threats of violence and protests.
As a last act, Wolf announced that he had authorized the US Secret Service to begin enhanced security operations on 13 January, nearly a full week before the inauguration ceremony, “in light of events of the past week and the evolving security landscape leading up to the inauguration”. Before the riots, the secret service was due to begin implementing special security measures on 19 January.
Wolf’s resignation comes hours before Trump is due to visit Alamo, Texas, where he will survey progress on the US-Mexico border wall.