Donald Trump’s post-impeachment purge surge has most recently taken direct aim at the intelligence community. Trump’s attacks will make it harder than ever for the community to avoid knuckling under even further to his personal and political agenda.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire, approaching the end of his permitted six months as acting chief, has been jettisoned rather than nominated to become the permanent director. Trump had distrusted Maguire — a national security professional and retired Navy admiral — ever since Maguire did not somehow find a way, despite the requirements the law imposed on him, to quash the whistleblower complaint that triggered the House impeachment investigation.
Trump’s anger boiled over, according to the Washington Post’s reporting, when Maguire also did not quash an intelligence community briefing of the House intelligence committee on Russia’s continued attempts to interfere in U.S. elections, including the 2020 presidential election.
To replace Maguire, Trump not only resorted to yet another “acting” appointee but named for that job an ideologue and partisan fighter, Richard Grenell. Grenell’s claims to fame in addition to his unquestioned political loyalty to Trump have been his conflict-laden relationship with the press when he was John Bolton’s spokesman at the U.S. mission to the United Nations, his trolling of Democrats during the 2016 election campaign, and his antagonizing of Europeans through his undiplomatic political behavior while U.S. ambassador to Germany.
The law governing senior level vacancies says that Grenell can remain as acting director only if Trump soon formally names a nominee for the job. Once such a nomination is made, Grenell can stay in his acting capacity for months as long as the confirmation process for the permanent nominee drags out. Trump thus has an incentive to nominate someone just as unqualified as Grenell is to be intelligence director. This factor may have been on Trump’s mind when he said he is considering nominating Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who was Trump’s principal defender on the House judiciary committee when it considered impeachment. (Collins, who is running for an open Senate seat, says he is not interested in the intelligence job.)
The replacement of professionals in the intelligence community with partisan warriors goes even further. Veteran CIA officer Andrew Hallman, who had been acting as deputy director of national intelligence, is out. In effect replacing him at the right-hand of the acting DNI is Kash Patel, who aided Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), ranking Republican and effectively Trump’s chief agent on the House intelligence committee, in endeavoring to discredit the investigation by intelligence and law enforcement agencies into the Russian election interference.
The recent intelligence community briefing to the House committee about the Russian activity — a necessary and proper happening, given the responsibilities of both the intelligence agencies and the congressional oversight committees — may have been the last diligent fulfillment of such responsibilities on such an important subject that we will see for a while. Trump is directly exerting pressure on the community to change its assessments about Russian interference — according to the Post’s reporting, he did so when he berated Maguire about the briefing. Trump also is determined to impede any provision of information on the subject to congressional committees. With his acolytes in place at the upper reaches of the intelligence community, he is likely to get his way.
With a foreign power reportedly gearing up to subvert the U.S. electoral process again and with the best U.S. intelligence on the subject likely to get either twisted or shoved out of sight, the damage from Trump’s politicization of intelligence will become even worse than before.