Trump sacks intelligence director after congress is warned Russia wants to see him re-elected
Anonymous White House offical claims committee was briefed that Russia has ‘developed a preference’ for the president
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A senior US intelligence official told lawmakers last week that Russia wants to see president Donald Trump re-elected, viewing his administration as more favourable to the Kremlin‘s interests, according to people who were briefed on the comments.
After learning of that analysis, which was provided to House of Representatives lawmakers in a classified hearing, Mr Trump erupted at his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, in the Oval Office, perceiving him and his staff as disloyal for speaking to congress about Russia’s perceived preference.
The intelligence official’s analysis and Mr Trump’s furious response ruined Mr Maguire’s chances of becoming the permanent intelligence chief, according to people familiar with the matter, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter.
It was not clear what specific steps, if any, US intelligence officials think Russia may have taken to help Mr Trump, according to the individuals.
Mr Trump announced on Wednesday that he was replacing Mr Maguire with a vocal loyalist, Richard Grenell, who is the US ambassador to Germany. The shake-up at the top of the intelligence community is the latest in a post-impeachment purge. Mr Trump has instructed aides to identify and remove officials across the government who aren’t defending his interests, and he wants them replaced with loyalists.
Mr Maguire, a career official who is respected by the intelligence rank and file, had been considered a leading candidate to be nominated for the post of Director of National Intelligence (DNI), White House aides had said. But Mr Trump’s opinion shifted last week when he heard from a GOP ally about the official’s remarks.
The official, Shelby Pierson, said several times during the briefing that Russia had “developed a preference” for Mr Trump, according to a US official familiar with her comments. That conclusion was part of a broader discussion on election security that also touched on when the US government should warn Democratic candidates that they were being targeted by foreign governments.
The New York Times first reported on the conclusion that Russia wants to help the president in 2020.
Mr Trump erroneously believed that Ms Pierson had given the assessment exclusively to Representative Adam Schiff, Democrat for California, the committee chairman, people familiar with the matter said. Mr Trump also believed that the information would be helpful to Democrats if it were released publicly, the people said. Representative Schiff was the lead impeachment manager, or prosecutor, during Mr Trump’s senate trial on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of congress.
Mr Trump learned about Ms Pierson’s remarks from Representative Devin Nunes, Republican for California, the committee’s ranking member and a staunch Trump ally, said one person familiar with the matter. Mr Trump’s suspicions of the intelligence community have often been fuelled by Mr Nunes, who was with the president in California on Wednesday when he announced on Twitter that Mr Grenell would become the acting director, officials said.
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A spokesman for Mr Nunes did not respond to requests for comment.
“Members on both sides participated, including ranking member Nunes, and heard the exact same briefing from experts across the intelligence community,” the committee official said. “No special or separate briefing was provided to one side or to any single member, including the chairman.”
The briefing, which was offered to all members of the committee, covered “election security and foreign interference in the run-up to the 2020 election”, said the committee official.
Other people familiar with the briefing described it as a contentious re-litigating of a previous intelligence assessment that Russia interfered in 2016 to help Mr Trump. Republican members questioned why the Russians would want to help Mr Trump when he has levied punishing sanctions on the country, and they challenged Ms Pierson to back up her claim with evidence. It’s unclear how she responded.
Republicans on the committee also accused some of the briefers from other agencies of being part of an effort to sabotage Mr Trump’s reelection, these people said.
Mr Trump became angry with Mr Maguire and blamed him for Ms Pierson’s remarks when the two met the next day during a special briefing for Mr Trump on election security attended by officials from other agencies, but not Ms Pierson.
At that briefing, Mr Trump angrily asked Mr Maguire why he had to learn of what Ms Pierson had said from Mr Nunes and not from his own aides, according to the US official.
“There was a dressing down” of Mr Maguire, said another individual, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. “That was the catalyst” that led to the sidelining of Mr Maguire in favor of Mr Grenell, the person said. Mr Maguire came away “despondent,” said another individual.
A spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment. The White House did not comment on Mr Trump’s Oval Office comments to Mr Maguire.
Mr Trump’s removal of Maguire exacerbated long-standing tensions between intelligence officials and the president. Intelligence leaders have long been some of Mr Trump’s favourite targets on Twitter and at campaign rallies, where he portrays them as members of a “deep state” bent on sabotaging his re-election.
But officials at the agencies insist they have carried on the tradition of providing the president and his top aides with unvarnished information not infected by politics or policy agendas.
Mr Grenell has no lengthy intelligence experience. But his history of pro-Trump tweets and his personal relationships with Mr Trump’s children has caused current and former officials to doubt whether he could credibly serve as the country’s top intelligence official, which they said Mr Maguire did, despite having spent his career in the military.
White House officials said that Mr Trump’s decision to make Mr Grenell the acting director, rather than nominate him for the permanent position, reflected concerns that he might not win confirmation in the senate given his polarising reputation. “The president likes acting [officials] better,” one White House official said.
On Thursday, Mr Grenell said in a tweet that the president would nominate a permanent Director of National Intelligence (DNI) “soon” and that it would not be him. A senior White House official said a nominee would be announced before 11 March.
The president has been focused lately on officials who are allegedly disloyal to him, particularly at the Justice Department, the National Security Council, the Pentagon and the State Department, aides said, and has heard from outside advisers that “real MAGA people can’t get jobs in the administration”, in the words of an administration official, referring to Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”.
Mr Trump has centralised his efforts to purge the ranks of his perceived opponents. In recent weeks, he pushed out Sean Doocey, the head of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, over the fierce objections of some White House aides, replacing him with Johnny McEntee, Mr Trump’s former personal assistant. Mr Trump has instructed McEntee, who lost his job in 2018 over concerns about his online gambling, to install more loyalists in government positions.
Some of those removed from their jobs testified about the president’s actions toward Ukraine during his impeachment hearings.
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