President Donald Trump’s announcement that he had selected a loyalist and political ally as his administration’s next intelligence chief quickly raised eyebrows Wednesday on Capitol Hill among Democrats already concerned about the state of Team Trump’s attitude toward the intelligence community.
On Wednesday night, Trump tweeted that Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany with a long history in the orbit of Trumpworld, would be named as the next acting Director of National Intelligence. The term of the current acting director, Joseph Maguire, was slated to expire on March 12.
The president’s appointment of another acting official to serve as the chief overseer of 17 U.S. intelligence agencies allows him to effectively bypass the Senate confirmation process—which a full-time nominee would be subjected to—in order to install his preferred person for the post. Grenell has already been confirmed by the Senate for his ambassadorship.
“Rick has represented our Country exceedingly well,” tweeted Trump, “and I look forward to working with him.”
One former intelligence official told The Daily Beast that career officials in ODNI were “blindsided” by the announcement. Two other senior Trump officials said the news of Grenell’s appointment moved its way through the halls of the White House over the last few days.
Grenell, who has been the top U.S. diplomat in Berlin since 2018, was a longtime spokesman for the George W. Bush administration at the United Nations, a foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s presidential run, and then later a pro-Trump political commentator and operative. He is close with several senior members in the Trump administration, including National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien.
Grenell does not have any direct experience in the intelligence field—a fact that triggered alarm bells for some.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was blunt in his reaction to the appointment: “The President has selected an individual without any intelligence experience to serve as the leader of the nation’s intelligence community in an acting capacity. This is the second acting director the President has named to the role since the resignation of Dan Coats, apparently in an effort to sidestep the Senate’s constitutional authority to advise and consent on such critical national security positions, and flouting the clear intent of Congress when it established the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2004,” he said in a statement.
“The intelligence community deserves stability and an experienced individual to lead them in a time of massive national and global security challenges,” he said. “And at a time when the integrity and independence of the Department of Justice has been called into grave question, now more than ever our country needs a Senate-confirmed intelligence director who will provide the best intelligence and analysis, regardless of whether or not it’s expedient for the President who has appointed him.”
“Having someone who is a political appointee with little or any background in intelligence come there on an acting basis is really the wrong move,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), “and I hope that the president will appoint a real professional."
The move is sure to be popular among Trump’s backers both on and off Capitol Hill, who have increasingly endorsed the president’s mistrust and antipathy toward the intelligence community. It was a CIA official who sparked impeachment proceedings by filing the whistleblower complaint that first described Trump’s fateful call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—a process that Maguire, the current acting DNI, testified before Congress about in September 2019.
Grenell would be the official most staunchly loyal to Trump to hold the position atop the intelligence community: Maguire is a career official, and his predecessor, former Sen. Dan Coats, found himself at odds with Trump on fundamental questions, like the role of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Incidentally, Grenell first got a very public vote of confidence in Trumpworld in the midst of an episode that was at the heart of impeachment proceedings against Trump: the smear campaign against then U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch that ended with her ouster last year.
Donald Trump Jr., referring to Yovanovitch, tweeted in March 2019: “We need more @RichardGrenell’s and less of these jokers as ambassadors.”
During his time as ambassador in Berlin, Grenell worked with European officials on the rise of the 5G network and the threats posed by China’s system. He was also an outspoken advocate for the administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign on Iran.