White House Names Ambassador As Acting Head Of Intelligence

Feb 20, 2020
Originally published on February 20, 2020 5:09 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

President Trump has announced on Twitter that he is replacing his acting director of national intelligence with someone who will also fill that post in an acting capacity.

And let's talk about this moment with NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre, who is following it. Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: Really important position, we should say. This is the very highest job in the intelligence community. So talk me through who's in and who's out here.

MYRE: Well, the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is out. He was tapped last August, but the law doesn't allow him to serve past March 11. He'd have to be confirmed in a permanent capacity. He never really hit it off with Trump. I mean, he had just - Maguire had just started the job when the Ukraine whistleblower complaint came up. He took this sort of middle ground that - he tried to block it for legal reasons. But he let it go through eventually, and he praised the integrity of the whistleblower.

Maguire's briefed Trump regularly, but they never really seemed to form a bond. So Trump has picked his ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, as the new acting director of national intelligence, very much in keeping with his preference to have sort of acting officials in place.

GREENE: Hmm.

What do we know about Grenell at this point?

MYRE: Well, if you think of the traditional intelligence chief as someone who's low-key and nonpartisan and likes to remain in the background, that is not Richard Grenell. He's combative, assertive, outspoken, fiercely partisan and loyal to Trump. That certainly seems to be what the president likes.

He was not a traditional diplomat in Germany. Right after he arrived two years ago, he tweeted publicly that German companies should stop doing business in Iran as part of the U.S. sanctions campaign. He called for more NATO spending in Germany. So it (ph) was really very critical of German policies, very undiplomatic in his approach.

Prior to that, he'd been a spokesman at the United Nations for the U.S. And one of the ambassadors he served there was John Bolton. And they seemed to be very much sort of in line in terms of their posture towards diplomacy.

GREENE: We should say, we're already seeing a lot of criticism of Grenell, especially from Democrats. What exactly are they objecting to?

MYRE: Well, the key feature of this job - of director of national intelligence is overseeing 17 intelligence agencies. And Grenell has no intelligence experience. He hasn't been an executive of a big organization. And there's certainly the argument that with Trump's sort of freewheeling approach, he'll want somebody with a strong, steady hand at the head of the intelligence community. One of the key jobs is overseeing the security of the 2020 election. And Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, says this - by appointing another acting director of national intelligence, the president seems to be sidestepping the Senate's constitutional authority.

GREENE: And am I right - Grenell's going to keep being ambassador to Germany even as he takes on this big role?

MYRE: Well, that's what's being reported. And this sometimes does happen - if an official's appointed to an acting job, they keep their old job. So this - that could well be the case.

GREENE: Do you think this move tells us anything about the president and his relationship with the intelligence community?

MYRE: It really just reaffirms the fact that he's never felt comfortable with career professionals. He's bypassed them for people he sees as loyalists. This is his third director of national intelligence. He's on his fourth national security adviser. And while the president hasn't had a major security crisis, he does have big decisions coming up - most immediately, a possible deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

GREENE: That's right. That's one of the big stories we're following.

All right, NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, thanks so much.

MYRE: My pleasure, David.

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