Trump’s war on the intelligence community: 10 days under an authoritarian administration

Introduction

Over the past 10 days, we’ve seen Trump fully indulge his authoritarian impulses in an attempt to stamp out any inkling of facts that he dislikes – whether that be for personal, egocentric reasons or to shore up political strength. One could argue the true “start” of this no-holds-barred dictatorial spree actually stretches back to the Republican acquittal in the impeachment trial. I’d agree with that, too. But 10 days ago Congress was given its first formal warning of the dangers facing our democracy in the next nine months. That Trump launched a war on the intelligence community in response to Americans trying to protect their country from foreign influence speaks volumes to me.

Trump and the Republican party are actively abetting an attack on our nation. “To abet” is to encourage or assist (someone) to do something wrong, in particular, to commit a crime or other offense. Using the immense power given to him by willing Republicans in Congress, Trump is using his authority to hobble the ability of anyone – even America’s national security leaders – to stop him and his regime from carrying out Trump’s desires, however corrupt, self-serving, or insane.


10 days ago…

The briefing

Ten days ago, on Feb. 13, the intelligence community warned House Intelligence Committee members that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election to try to get Donald Trump re-elected. The briefing, provided by top election security official Shelby Pierson, informed House lawmakers that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump and would also interfere in Democratic primaries.

Trump – who learned of the briefing from the committee’s Ranking Member Devin Nunes – grew angry at acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Joseph Maguire for providing the information to Congress. The following day, Trump “berated” Maguire for allowing it to take place. According to The New York Times, “Trump was particularly irritated that Representative Adam B. Schiff” was present because the president worried that Schiff would “weaponize” the intelligence about Russia’s support for him.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff responded to Trump’s anger at the briefing: “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. Exactly as we warned he would do.”

Side note: A Pardon for Assange

Trump is so desperate to keep Russia’s interference on his behalf a secret, that he may have supported then-Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s offer of a pardon to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in exchange for denying Russian involvement in the Democratic National Committee email leak.

Lawyer Edward Fitzgerald told a court on Wednesday that a witness statement application claimed that then-California representative Dana Rohrabacher went to visit Assange at the Ecuadorean Embassy in London on the instruction of the “President.” According to the statement described by Fitzgerald, Rohrabacher’s mission was to offer Assange a US pardon, if he would “play ball” by saying the Russians had nothing to do with the leak — an assertion Assange had previously made.

The White House has denied the claim and distanced itself from Rohrabacher.

The former congressman admits to making the offer to Assange – but does not state that President Trump directed him to do so.

“I spoke to Julian Assange and told him if he would provide evidence about who gave WikiLeaks the emails, I would petition the president to give him a pardon,” Rohrabacher told Yahoo News. “He knew I could get to the president.”

The purge

In retaliation for the briefing, Trump ditched considerations to nominate Maguire to be permanent DNI and quickly replaced him with loyalist Richard Grenell.

  • Ominous warning: William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral who oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden, wrote in The Washington Post that “if good men like Joe Maguire can’t speak the truth, we should be deeply afraid.” McRaven continues: “in this administration, good men and women don’t last long. Joe was dismissed for doing his job: overseeing the dissemination of intelligence to elected officials who needed that information to do their jobs…when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.”

In the days that followed, two other top Intelligence officials announced their departures: (1) Grenell fired the second-highest-ranking official at the ODNI, Andrew Hallman, who had over three decades of intelligence experience; (2) the top lawyer for the ODNI, Jason Klitenic, submitted his resignation, to go into effect in early March. It is unlikely that Klitenic was pushed out, because he played a role in helping prevent the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint from reaching Congress last year.

Within his first 48 hours, Grenell proceeded to name Kash Patel, former adviser to Rep. Devin Nunes, as a senior adviser in the office of the DNI. As Nunes’ top staffer, Patel authored a memo used to argue that the FBI and DOJ’s probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was actually a deep state plot to take down Trump. Patel also assisted Trump in his pressure campaign against Ukraine: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill testified to Congress that Patel “misrepresented” as the NSC expert on Ukraine, which was actually Vindman’s position.

Vindman also testified that he was told Patel had been circumventing normal NSC process to get negative material about Ukraine in front of the president, feeding Trump’s belief that Ukraine was brimming with corruption and had interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of Democrats.

That upset Vindman, along with Hill and Bolton, he testified, because they were constantly having to counter that narrative with the president.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Patel may have coordinated the hold on aid to Ukraine to begin with:

…the 300-page impeachment report released by House Intelligence Committee Democrats Tuesday said that Patel spoke with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, in the spring, before nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine was suspended.

According to the call records revealed in the report, Patel had a 25-minute phone conversation with Giuliani on May 10. Five minutes after their call, Giuliani spoke with an unidentified number for 17 minutes and then with associate Lev Parnas, a Ukrainian-American who has been accused of illegally funneling foreign money to U.S. political candidates and of aiding Giuliani in his Ukraine investigations.

Acting officials

Richard Grenell, Trump’s newest acting-DNI, has served as U.S. ambassador to Germany since 2018. By taking advantage of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Trump has been able to maintain a cabinet full of acting officials with little Congressional oversight. If a vacancy occurs in a position that requires Senate confirmation, Trump can appoint someone from any agency who is serving in a different Senate-confirmed position, Grenell, as an ambassador, has already been confirmed by the Senate – though for an entirely different job with entirely different qualifications.

Acting officials can serve in the vacant position for 210 days. If the president submits a nomination to the Senate during that time, the acting officer can continue to perform the office’s duties while the nomination is pending, however long it takes. If the nominee is returned, the officer can work as acting for another 210 days, and then through a second entire nomination process, and a final 210 days if that second nominee is returned. Then, if time runs out, the office must remain vacant until someone is confirmed by the Senate for the job.

  • Note: Enforcement of the Federal Vacancies Reform Act is problematic. It is up to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to track time of acting service for each position. If the GAO finds a violation, the office must send a letter to the agency involved, to the president, and to Congress. At this point, the person’s actions have no force or effect – but someone with legal standing needs to bring a lawsuit in order to enforce the provision.

Therefore, because Maguire was serving as an acting official as well, Grenell cannot remain in the acting DNI position past March 11 unless the president formally nominates someone else for the job. The White House and Grenell have acknowledged that a search for a formal nominee is underway. The administration was reportedly considering Rep. Doug Collins for the post… until Collins turned down the job on national television.

  • Jan. 2019, Trump said: “I sort of like acting. It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like acting. So we have a few that are acting. We have a great, great Cabinet.” A recent analysis found that acting officials in the Trump administration have held down 22 cabinet and cabinet-level jobs for a combined 2,700 days — about 1 out of every 9 days across those jobs.
  • Hypothetical: Let’s say Trump wants to keep Grenell in the position for as long as possible, without nominating him because it is unlikely Grenell would be confirmed, even by the Republican-controlled Senate (see below). As long as Trump nominates someone for the position by March 11, Grenell can serve for however long as the Senate confirmation process takes – typically, around 2 months if the nominee is uncontroversial. That puts Grenell’s end date in mid-May. But Trump could intentionally nominate someone controversial to slow the process, or possibly even instruct his Senate allies to slow-walk the process. That would push out Grenell’s end date into the summer. If the nominee is not confirmed, the 210 day clock resets, giving Grenell an additional six months to serve in his acting capacity. As the end of that six months nears, Trump could put forward a second nominee, during whose confirmation process Grenell can continue to serve in the position. If that nominee fails as well, Grenell has a final six months to be acting-DNI before the position must remain vacant.

Who is Richard Grenell?

Grenell has no experience as an intelligence officer and has only served in government as a communications director for the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the George W. Bush administration. After that, Grenell ran a public affairs consultancy and appeared on Fox News. In May 2018 he was confirmed as the ambassador to Germany, where he quickly made enemies:

Grenell’s tenure as ambassador to Germany has been rocky, at least from Berlin’s perspective. He has palled around with far-right groups, spoken openly of a desire to change Angela Merkel’s government, and made statements about U.S. views that sounded like direct orders to sensitive German ears. Last spring, leaders of two German political parties called him a “brat” and a “failure” and urged his ouster.

Additionally, Grenell is an associate of none-other-than Rudy Giuliani. According to Lev Parnas, Victoria Toensing asked Grenell “for advance notice if the Department of Justice were to move to extradite an indicted Ukrainian oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, from whom Giuliani hoped to get compromising information. Parnas also claims Grenell said he would comply.” Firtash is a powerful ally of Vladimir Putin and has assisted the Russian president’s attempt to gain control over Ukraine’s political system and economy. In 2017, the U.S. Justice Department said Firtash was among the “upper echelon associates of Russian organized crime.”

Aside from being remarkably unqualified, it is unclear whether Grenell even has a top-level security clearance or could qualify for one. A report by ProPublica revealed that Grenell used to do consulting work for Moldovan politician Vladimir Plahotniuc, “who is now a fugitive and was recently barred from entering the U.S. under anti-corruption sanctions imposed last month by the State Department.” Grenell failed to disclose this work and did not register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

Undisclosed work for a foreign politician would ordinarily pose a problem for anyone applying for a security clearance or a job in a U.S. intelligence agency because it could make the person susceptible to foreign influence or blackmail, according to the official policy from the office that Trump tapped Grenell to lead.

“That’s really easy, he should not have a clearance,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington-area lawyer specializing in security clearances. “If he were one of my clients and just a normal [federal employee], he would almost assuredly not have a clearance.”

McClanahan said it’s unclear how Grenell could have already gotten a clearance as an ambassador. The House Oversight Committee is investigating whether the Trump administration has overruled career officials in granting security clearances to political appointees.

Aside from his appearances on Fox News, Grenell may have come to Trump’s attention through the patronage of Trump properties. The Washington Post found that the Trump International Hotel in D.C. listed Grenell as a “Gold” level member of the Trump Organization’s “Trump Card” loyalty program in 2018. Kelly Craft, the ambassador to the U.N., was also listed as a gold level member.

Russia’s bet keeps paying off

Moving back to the source of Trump’s fury: The nation knows that Russia prefers Trump to win re-election. When told this, Trump’s Republican allies on the House Intelligence Committee challenged the ODNI’s conclusion. But, as Russia expert Julia Davis points out, Russian state media has never stopped declaring the multitude of ways that Trump’s election has proven “exceedingly beneficial for the Kremlin.”

Russian state media openly gloats about the Kremlin’s influence over Trump, believing that he can endure the exposure without repercussions, and by flaunting the Kremlin’s sway with the White House, Russia further weakens U.S. democracy, which has always been one of its main pursuits.

…Every denial of Russian election interference coming out of the White House brings Putin one step closer to the fulfillment of his goals. Every election-security bill that is blocked by the GOP in the Senate gives advantage to our foreign adversaries—and they are not sick of winning.

We don’t need to rely on Russian state media to tell us that Putin prefers Trump: The Russian president has told us so himself. In 2018, at a joint press conference with Trump in Helsinki, Putin told the press that he wanted Trump to win in 2016 because he believed Trump’s policies would be more beneficial to the Kremlin. “Yes, I did. Yes, I did. Because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal,” Putin said.

Washington Post columnist Max Boot lays out the global benefits Russia enjoys:

Putin doesn’t care about Trump’s sanctions on Iran, which indirectly help Russia by boosting the price of oil. But he does care that Trump has strengthened Russia’s longtime ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad.

…Trump has facilitated Russian designs not only in Syria but also in Libya, where the Russian-backed strongman Khalifa Hifter is trying to overthrow a United Nations-backed government in Tripoli. The U.S. government ostensibly supports the regime in Tripoli, but Trump called Hifter and gave him a green light for his offensive. Trump is making Russia great again in the Middle East for the first time since Egypt expelled Russian advisers in 1972.

…Far from strengthening NATO, as he now boasts, Trump has weakened it by relentlessly criticizing the alliance and portraying it as a bunch of deadbeats.


Addendum

The purge, act 2

While Trump purges officials he sees as disloyal from the intelligence community, newly-returned staffer John McEntee is busy searching out “Never Trumpers” to punish. According to Axios, “McEntee called in White House liaisons from cabinet agencies for an introductory meeting Thursday, in which he asked them to identify political appointees across the U.S. government who are believed to be anti-Trump.” Those officials “will no longer get promotions by shifting them around agencies.”

  • Reminder: McEntee was Trump’s personal aide throughout much of 2017 and into 2018, but was pushed out by then-Chief of Staff John Kelly over gambling debts that threatened his security clearance. Trump reportedly sees McEntee as “the ultimate loyalist” and brought him back at a time when the president “feels he’s surrounded by snakes and wants to clear out all the disloyal people.”

Meanwhile, Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro is on a quest to identify and remove the author known as “Anonymous,” responsible for many anti-Trump op-eds and the book “A Warning.” Last week, it appears that Navarro has zeroed in on a potential suspect: Deputy National Security Adviser Victoria Coates, who is being transferred to the Department of Energy. Though the official White House line doesn’t acknowledge it, The New York Times reported that Coates has been “targeted by a whisper campaign among some pro-Trump conservatives that she was Anonymous.” Allies of Coates deny the allegation.

Several officials who heard Navarro push this said they do not believe Coates is the author and several described her as loyal to the President’s agenda. However, the workplace became untenable given these dynamics, so Coates began looking for an exit, officials said, which led to her move to the Energy Department on Thursday. CNN

A weakened National Security apparatus

After last year’s exodus of National Security officials, the entire system is weakened by a lack of expertise and will to stand up for the truth. The NSC has gone from 174 policy positions in October, to fewer than 115 this month. Under Trump’s National Security Adviser, Robert O’Brien, the NSC has been co-opted to building support for Trump’s craziest whims. The New York Times reports:

When President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, convenes meetings with top National Security Council officials at the White House, he sometimes opens by distributing printouts of Mr. Trump’s latest tweets on the subject at hand.

The gesture amounts to an implicit challenge for those present. Their job is to find ways of justifying, enacting or explaining Mr. Trump’s policy, not to advise the president on what it should be.

That is the reverse of what the National Security Council was created to do at the Cold War’s dawn — to inform and advise the president on national security decisions.

Most recently, O’Brien proved his willingness to do Trump’s dirty work and weaponize intelligence for political gain. In an interview with ABC News, O’Brien states that he hasn’t seen any evidence of Russia seeking to help Trump. But, O’Brien says, it is plausible that Russia is seeking to help the Democrats instead. Saying of Bernie Sanders specifically, O’Brien says it’s “no surprise, he honeymooned in Moscow.”


Originally written for tomorrow’s Lost in the Sauce. As such, I tried to keep it as brief as possible… didn’t turn out very brief, however, which is why I posted it separately. The scary part is that it could be much longer! It’s not exhaustive. For instance, I’ll be covering Trump’s pardons in the Sauce newsletter tomorrow even though it would fit in this post, too. As The New Yorker summed up: “The point of authoritarianism is to concentrate power in the ruler, so the world knows that all actions, good and bad, harsh and generous, come from a single source.”

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