A senior U.S. intelligence official told lawmakers last week that Russia wants to see President Trump reelected, viewing his administration as more favorable to the Kremlin’s interests, according to people who were briefed on the comments.
After learning of that analysis, which was provided to House lawmakers in a classified hearing, Trump grew angry at his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, in the Oval Office, seeing Maguire and his staff as disloyal for speaking to Congress about Russia’s perceived preference. The intelligence official’s analysis and Trump’s furious response ruined Maguire’s chances of becoming the permanent intelligence chief, according to people familiar with the matter who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
It was not clear what specific steps, if any, U.S. intelligence officials think Russia may have taken to help Trump, according to the individuals.
Trump announced on Wednesday that he was replacing Maguire with a vocal loyalist, Richard Grenell, who is the U.S. ambassador to Germany. The shake-up at the top of the intelligence community is the latest move in a post-impeachment purge. Trump has instructed aides to identify and remove officials across the government who aren’t defending his interests, and he wants them replaced with loyalists.
Maguire, a career official who is respected by the intelligence rank and file, was considered a leading candidate to be nominated to the post of DNI, White House aides had said. But Trump’s opinion shifted last week when he heard from a Republican ally about the official’s remarks.
The official, Shelby Pierson, said several times during the briefing that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump, according to a U.S. official familiar with her comments. That conclusion was part of a broader discussion of election security that also touched on when the U.S. government should warn Democratic candidates if they are being targeted by foreign governments.
The New York Times first reported on the intelligence conclusion that Russia wants to help the president in 2020.
Trump erroneously believed that Pierson had given the assessment exclusively to Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, people familiar with the matter said. Trump also believed that the information would be helpful to Democrats if it were released publicly, the people said. Schiff was the lead impeachment manager, or prosecutor, during Trump’s Senate trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Trump learned about Pierson’s remarks from Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the committee’s ranking Republican and a staunch Trump ally, said one person familiar with the matter. Trump’s suspicions of the intelligence community have often been fueled by Nunes, who was with the president in California on Wednesday when he announced on Twitter that Grenell would become the acting director, officials said.
A spokesman for Nunes did not respond to requests for comment.
“Members on both sides participated, including ranking member Nunes, and heard the exact same briefing from experts across the intelligence community,” a committee official said. “No special or separate briefing was provided to one side or to any single member, including the chairman.”
The briefing, which was offered to all members of the committee, covered “election security and foreign interference in the run-up to the 2020 election,” the committee official said.
Other people familiar with the briefing described it as a contentious re-litigating of a previous intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in 2016 to help Trump. Republican members asked why the Russians would want to help Trump when he has levied punishing sanctions on their country, and they challenged Pierson to back up her claim with evidence. It is unclear how she responded.
Republicans on the committee also accused some of the briefers from other agencies of being part of an effort to sabotage Trump’s reelection, these people said. Schiff, for his part, said in a tweet Thursday evening: “We count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections. If reports are true, and the president is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling.”
Trump became angry with Maguire and blamed him for Pierson’s remarks when the two met the next day during a special briefing for Trump on election security attended by officials from other agencies, but not Pierson.
At that briefing, Trump angrily asked Maguire why he had to learn of what Pierson had said from Nunes and not from his own aides, according to administration officials with knowledge of the meeting. He said that Maguire should not have let the Capitol Hill briefing happen — particularly before he received the briefing — and that he should not have learned about it from a congressman, said one administration official.
Trump told Maguire and other aides in the Oval Office that he did not believe Russia was interfering to help him or planning to do so, and that the intelligence community was getting “played,” according to an administration official with knowledge of the meeting. He said that the information would be used against him unfairly and that he could not believe that people were believing such a story again, reflecting his opinion that Russian interference in 2016 was a “hoax” made up by officials with a political agenda.
Maguire struck an apologetic tone and said he was looking into it, this official said.
Trump gave Maguire “a dressing-down,” said another individual, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “That was the catalyst” that led to the sidelining of Maguire in favor of Grenell, the person said.
Maguire came away “despondent,” said another individual.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. The White House did not comment on Trump’s Oval Office comments to Maguire.
Trump’s removal of Maguire exacerbated long-standing tensions between intelligence officials and the president. Intelligence leaders have long been some of Trump’s favorite targets on Twitter and at campaign rallies, where he portrays them as members of a “deep state” bent on sabotaging his reelection.
But officials at the agencies insist they have carried on the tradition of providing the president and his top aides with unvarnished information not infected by politics or policy agendas.
Grenell has no lengthy intelligence experience. His history of pro-Trump tweets and his personal relationships with Trump’s children have caused current and former officials to doubt whether he could credibly serve as the country’s top intelligence official, which they said Maguire did, despite having spent his career in the military.
White House officials said Trump’s decision to make Grenell the acting director rather than nominate him for the permanent position reflected concerns that he might not win confirmation in the Senate, given his polarizing reputation. “The president likes acting [officials] better,” one White House official said.
On Thursday, Grenell said in a tweet that the president would nominate a permanent DNI “soon” and that it would not be him. A senior White House official said a nominee would be announced before March 11.
Late Thursday, Trump thanked Grenell “for stepping in to serve as acting DNI” in a message on Twitter. “I will be nominating a terrific candidate for the job very soon. Stay tuned!” The president told reporters aboard Air Force One that Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), a staunch Trump supporter who also is running for U.S. Senate, is under consideration for the permanent post.
The president has been focused lately on officials who are allegedly disloyal to him, particularly at the Justice Department, the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department, aides said, and has heard from outside advisers that “real MAGA people can’t get jobs in the administration,” in the words of an administration official, referring to Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
Trump has centralized his efforts to purge the ranks of his perceived opponents. In recent weeks he pushed out Sean Doocey, the head of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, over the fierce objections of some White House aides, replacing him with Johnny McEntee, Trump’s former personal assistant. Trump has instructed McEntee, who lost his job in 2018 over concerns about his online gambling, to install more loyalists in government positions.
Some of those removed from their jobs testified about the president’s actions toward Ukraine during his impeachment hearings.
Trump removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, as well as Vindman’s twin brother, who did not testify, from their positions at the National Security Council. Alexander Vindman witnessed a phone call Trump had with Ukraine’s president in which Trump pressured the leader to conduct investigations of Trump’s Democratic rivals.
Trump asked for the resignation of Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who told House lawmakers the president had engineered a quid pro quo with Ukraine, conditioning a White House meeting with the country’s president on investigations of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
This week, Trump also asked for the resignation of John C. Rood, the official in charge of Defense Department policy, who had certified that Ukraine had met anti-corruption obligations required by law to receive U.S. aid that Trump froze.
The deputy national security adviser, Victoria Coates, has also been removed from her post after some colleagues, including trade adviser Peter Navarro, accused her of being the author of “Anonymous,” a scathing account of dysfunction in the White House, according to people familiar with the matter. Coates has strenuously denied the accusation. She was moved to an advisory position in the Energy Department.
By contrast, Grenell appears to be an ideal Trump appointee. The president appreciates that he publicly bashes Germany over policy disagreements. Grenell also defends the president on Fox News and on Twitter, and when he visits the White House for meetings, Trump usually wants to see him, current and former administration officials say.
As acting DNI, Grenell will oversee the intelligence community’s efforts to combat election interference and disinformation, but he has been skeptical of Russia’s role in 2016.
“Russian or Russian-approved tactics like cyber warfare and campaigns of misinformation have been happening for decades,” he wrote in a 2016 opinion article for Fox News, playing down the severity of the threat. That view is at odds with the conclusions of senior U.S. intelligence officials, who have said Russia’s operation in 2016 was sweeping and systematic, and unlike previous Russian or Soviet efforts.