Dispatch February 20, 2020

Trump’s Latest Consolidation of Power: Capturing the Intelligence Services

With impeachment in the rearview mirror, President Donald Trump is accelerating his efforts to weaponize the U.S. government for his personal benefit. Trump already has his Roy Cohn at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in Attorney General William Barr, who has abused his office to protect the president. Now, Trump is turning to the intelligence community to further consolidate his power and leverage the government for personal gain by making his ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, the acting director of national intelligence (DNI).

America’s top intelligence official will now a Trump political loyalist who will be expected to protect Trump—just as Barr has done within the DOJ.

  • Trump’s first DNI, Dan Coats, was one the most vocal cabinet members when it came to sounding the alarm about Russian interference. This made Coats a target of Trump’s unhinged Twitter rants and eventually led to him being pushed out of the administration.
  • Trump also pushed out Coats’ deputy DNI, Sue Gordon—a career CIA official who otherwise would have been next in line for the position—ensuring that Trump could have his personal pick once Coats left.
  • John Ratcliffe (R-TX), who Trump initially nominated to replace Coats, was a Trump-friendly figure: He was one of the president’s top congressional defenders, repeatedly attacking and spreading conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation.
  • Although Trump ultimately withdrew Ratcliffe’s nomination amid reports that he had exaggerated his prosecutorial record, the episode clearly showed that Trump’s priority is personal loyalty, not expertise in national security or intelligence.
  • Now, Trump is replacing the acting DNI Joseph Maguire—who famously broke with Trump by testifying to Congress about the whistleblower complaint that began the impeachment investigation—with Grenell, who has no experience with the intelligence community.
    • Trump’s charges of disloyalty were reportedly not only misguided but also outright false. According toThe Washington Post, the president attacked and ultimately replaced Maguire due to his mistaken belief that an election security briefing by one of Maguire’s deputies was given only to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA). The briefing was actually given to committee members of both parties, including ranking member Devin Nunes (R-CA).
    • According to The New York Times, the briefing in question was specifically about the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia intends to interfere in the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf, just as they did in 2016. That just reinforces the fact that Trump’s priority is using his power to cover up, not combat, foreign interference in the 2020 election—as long as that interference helps him.
  • Trump is circumventing the typical nomination process for Grenell by avoiding a Senate vote and ensuring that Grenell answers not to the American people, and certainly not to Congress, but to Trump alone.

Grenell has proven that he is a Trump loyalist and insider who is willing to shirk his responsibilities to carry out the president’s political agenda.

  • Grenell’s service as ambassador to Germany has been characterized by widespread criticism and controversy because of his inappropriate politicization of the role. He has vocally supported right-wing political movements in Europe, including in a 2018 interview with Breitbart, which landed him on the Moscow Project’s list of ways the Trump administration has supported Russia’s foreign policy agenda.
  • Grenell is such a fixture at Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C., that he is reportedly one of only nine “gold status” members in the “Trump Card” loyalty program.
  • According to indicted Trump legal team member Lev Parnas, Grenell was also involved in the Ukraine scandal. Parnas told Rachel Maddow that Grenell was in charge of tipping off representatives of the indicted Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash about potential pressure to extradite him from Vienna to face prosecution in the United States. Firtash allegedly offered to help with Trump’s anti-Biden efforts in exchange for having the charges against him dropped.
    • Firtash denies the charges against him and denies being involved in any effort to obtain dirt on Trump’s political opponents. Grenell has not commented on the allegation. Parnas has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges against him.

Grenell’s appointment makes him uniquely dangerous. The DNI will be involved in a series of important and politically sensitive decisions over the course of the next several months, including providing intelligence briefings to Trump’s opponent in the 2020 election; deciding whether and how to disclose foreign interference attacks during the campaign; and determining what resources to dedicate to monitoring and combating foreign interference. An independent DNI is essential during an election in an era of unprecedented foreign attacks on American democracy. A potentially corrupt loyalist like Grenell could try to keep Congress and the American people out of the loop, just as Barr has shown his willingness to act as Trump’s political fixer. Can he be trusted to manage a fair process for Trump’s political opponents?

Grenell’s appointment is merely the latest in a long series of steps Trump has taken to purge government officials he believes were personally disloyal to him during the impeachment investigation, including:

  • Col. Alexander Vindman, who Trump dismissed from the National Security Council (NSC) for testifying against him during the impeachment investigation.
    • White House officials told The New York Times that they tried to use downsizing the NSC as cover for removing Vindman, but Trump repeatedly attacked Vindman to make it clear that his dismissal was about retaliation. Trump even demanded that the military consider disciplining Vindman for his perceived disloyalty to Trump. The U.S. Army has declined to do so.
    • The White House also dismissed Vindman’s twin brother Lt. Col. Yevgeny Vindman and has yet to provide its reason for doing so.
  • Gordon Sondland, the million-dollar Trump donor whose early efforts to protect Trump in the Ukraine scandal did not protect him from being dismissed after he admitted that Trump’s actions in Ukraine were a quid pro quo.
  • Ambassador Bill Taylor, whose tenure as the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine was cut short so that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would not have to interact with him on a trip to the country in January.
  • Jessie Liu, who oversaw the prosecutions of Roger Stone and Paul Manafort as head of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Trump withdrew Liu’s nomination for a position in the U.S. Treasury Department after the impeachment trial ended.
  • John Rood, a top U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) official who helped certify that, contrary to Trump’s assertions, Ukraine had done enough to fight corruption to receive military aid. Rood resigned on Wednesday at Trump’s request.
  • Elaine McCusker, another DOD official who resisted Trump’s efforts to extort Ukraine, whose nomination for comptroller and chief financial officer of the Pentagon is reportedly in jeopardy.
  • Joseph Maguire, one of the few Trump administration officials to comply with a subpoena for congressional testimony in the Ukraine investigation, whom Grenell is now replacing. 

Meanwhile, Trump has gone all out in attacking the four DOJ officials who withdrew from the case against Roger Stone after Trump and Barr interfered to reduce the sentencing recommendations, as well as Judge Amy Berman Jackson, who oversaw the trial, and even an individual juror in the case.

As Trump seeks to remake the executive branch in his image, congressional oversight has become more important than ever. It is past time for Congress to step up and investigate the president’s brazen efforts to use the government as a tool for his personal political benefit.