Donald Trump announced on Wednesday night that Ambassador Richard Grenell would, at least temporarily, oversee the U.S. intelligence community. It was among the most ridiculous of the president’s personnel decisions: Grenell, best known for his work as an internet troll, has never served a day in the intelligence community in any capacity. The idea of him serving as the acting director of national intelligence is bizarre.
Yesterday, however, brought the controversy into sharper focus. While it matters that Trump elevated an unqualified loyalist to an important post, what matters far more are the events that precipitated the decision. The New York Times reported overnight:
Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected, five people familiar with the matter said, a disclosure to Congress that angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.
The timeline of events is astonishing. On Feb. 12 — Wednesday of last week — U.S. intelligence professionals alerted lawmakers to the fact that Russia is targeting the 2020 elections, once again hoping to keep Trump in power. A day later, the president lashed out at Joseph Maguire, who was serving as the acting director of national intelligence, complaining about Congress being briefed on information that’s politically inconvenient to his re-election campaign.
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Told that a foreign adversary was once again targeting U.S. elections, Trump was furious — not with Russia, but with the truth getting out. His instinct to put his interests above ours is unshakable.
Or put another way, the American president wasn’t not bothered with Russian efforts to keep him in power; Trump’s bothered that officials might learn the facts about Russian efforts to keep him in power.
Just one week later, Maguire was out at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, replaced with a partisan Republican with literally none of the necessarily qualifications.
This has the elements of yet another legitimate political scandal. Among other things, it raises the prospect of a sitting American president deliberately trying to hide intelligence from Congress in order to help his campaign. Indeed, as the Times‘ report added, “[S]ome current and former intelligence officials expressed fears that Mr. Grenell may have been put in place explicitly to slow the pace of information on election interference to Congress.”
At the same time, by replacing Maguire with Grenell, Trump has signaled to intelligence professionals throughout the government that those who tell inconvenient truths are putting their careers on the line. The reminder is unsubtle: the president expects personal loyalty, not responsible governance.
And finally, there’s the apparent fact than an American adversary, four years removed from the most serious foreign attack on the United States since 9/11, is once again planning to interfere with our elections in order to help Trump. In fact, the Times‘ reporting added, “Though intelligence officials have previously told lawmakers that Russia’s interference campaign was continuing, last week’s briefing included what appeared to be new information: that Russia intended to interfere with the 2020 Democratic primaries as well as the general election.”
What does Trump intend to do about the foreign attack? Evidently, the president has settled on an answer: do his best to hide information about the attack from Congress.