WASHINGTON – When he first took office, President Donald 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 support of Chad Wolf, his acting homeland security secretary. Past homeland security leaders under Trump, like Kirstjen Nielsen and Kevin McAleenan, at times clashed with the White House on policy or were seen as insufficiently zealous in carrying out orders. But 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 Trump's political whims.
"The violent mob is not worthy of even polishing Washington's statue, let alone desecrating it," 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 Wolf was rightly carrying out the president's wishes.
"American ideals are under attack," Woltornist said. "President Trump is taking strong action to restore order. Acting Secretary Wolf is committed to using all DHS authorities and resources to implement President Trump's agenda."
But the use of homeland security resources as firepower in 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."
Early in the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security became the center of the anti-immigration agenda that 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 U.S. 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 Trump signed an executive order to prosecute people who damage federal monuments or statues, 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.
Suzanne Spaulding, an undersecretary for cybersecurity and critical infrastructure in the Obama administration, said she was concerned for the department's reputation.
"DHS operates on the basis of trust, and I'm worried," she said. "Already many of us were very concerned about sustaining public support for DHS and its broad missions."