A weird story even by the exceptionally weird standards of the Trump era.
If WaPo’s reporting is correct, someone misled the president into believing that a special secret briefing for his archenemy, Adam Schiff, had been arranged by his own administration.
Or, alternately, WaPo’s sources are in the dark about that secret briefing but Trump’s sources are not.
Let’s back up. Supposedly Trump freaked out last week when he heard that an aide to his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, had met individually with Schiff about election security. That was the end of Maguire’s chances at being nominated to take over the role permanently, clearing the way for Ric Grenell to be shuffled over into the acting director’s slot instead. Just one wrinkle: That individual meeting with Schiff supposedly didn’t happen.
Maguire had been considered a leading candidate to be nominated for the DNI post, White House aides had said. But Trump’s opinion shifted last week, after he heard from a GOP ally that the intelligence official in charge of election security, who works for Maguire, gave a classified briefing last Thursday to the House Intelligence Committee on 2020 election security.
It’s unclear what the official, Shelby Pierson, specifically said at the briefing that angered Trump, But the president erroneously believed that she had given information exclusively to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the committee chairman, and it would be helpful to Democrats if released publicly, the people familiar with the matter said…
Pierson, who coordinates the intelligence community’s efforts to gather information on foreign threats to U.S. elections, spoke at a briefing held for the full committee on “election security and foreign interference in the run-up to the 2020 election,” said a committee official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to detail closed-door proceedings.
There was no special briefing for any individual member, said the source. And yes, Republicans were present for the full committee briefing, including Devin Nunes.
Which raises the question: Er, what sort of information about election security does Trump think would be so “helpful to Democrats if released publicly” that he’d throw a fit and immediately appoint a new acting DNI because he feared it had leaked to Schiff?
One possibility, as I say, is that WaPo has bad information. Maybe someone close to Trump on the committee like Nunes has reason to believe that Schiff did get some type of special briefing even if the paper’s sources don’t. The other possibility is that … the president is being lied to by his own trusted confidants for reasons that are unclear. Conceivably someone had a grudge against Maguire and/or Pierson and knew exactly what to say to Trump to get them nuked. Or conceivably that person wanted Maguire out of the job and Grenell in. Accusing Maguire of disloyalty and packaging it with a recommendation that Grenell could be trusted might result in the latter replacing the former.
The extreme Machiavellian scenario is that Trump knew there was no secret briefing for Schiff but leveled the accusation anyway as a reason to rotate Maguire out and Grenell in. Trump may have a grudge of his own against Maguire, as Maguire was the official who ultimately forwarded the whistleblower complaint in the Ukraine matter to Congress after holding it back for a few weeks in September. Schiff had excoriated Maguire for the delay at the time; Maguire ultimately relented. Trump might have regarded that as “weak” or scapegoated Maguire for his subsequent political ordeal and used this incident as a pretext to bring in a loyalist like Grenell.
My suspicion yesterday was that he wanted Grenell in the role because he knew Grenell could be counted on to carry out some sort of vendetta for him against intel personnel who’d made his life difficult during impeachment (and before). Trump loves having acting directors in leadership roles because they don’t have to pass Senate scrutiny and they may be more obedient to the president in the hope of being nominated to the position permanently. But WaPo cites a source who claims that he’s planning to nominate someone permanently to the DNI position before March 11. And Grenell himself suggested today that he’s in a seat-warmer role as acting director, with a different person destined to be the nominee:
Correct. Acting. The President will announce the Nominee (not me) sometime soon. https://t.co/9ShqB2eXea
— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) February 20, 2020
I don’t know if Grenell could get confirmed anyway. Federal law states that “Any individual nominated for appointment as Director of National Intelligence shall have extensive national security expertise.” No doubt Trump would prefer to nominate Nunes, whose time on the Intel Committee probably does give him sufficient “expertise” for the position. But he’s a political crony of the president’s. Are there four Republicans in the Senate who’d object to having a person like that in charge of intel?
Update: Aha. So that’s the information Trump didn’t want Schiff to have.
Intelligence officials warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected, five people familiar with the matter said, in a disclosure that angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.
The day after the Feb. 13 briefing to lawmakers, Mr. Trump berated Joseph Maguire, the outgoing acting director of national intelligence, for allowing it to take place, people familiar with the exchange said. Mr. Trump cited the presence in the briefing of Representative Adam B. Schiff, the California Democrat who led the impeachment proceedings against him, as a particular irritant.
During the briefing to the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Trump’s allies challenged the conclusions, arguing that Mr. Trump has been tough on Russia and strengthened European security. Some intelligence officials viewed the briefing as a tactical error, saying that had official who delivered the conclusion spoken less pointedly or left it out, they would have avoided angering the Republicans.
Sounds to me like it wasn’t the thought of Schiff hearing this *privately* that freaked out Trump, it was the thought of him or any other Democrat hearing it at all.
The Times’s sources say that Grenell was already in talks to take over as acting DNI and that the blow-up with Maguire was coincidental. Maybe. But if you’re a president who’s eager to bottle up some very unhelpful information about Russia trying to put a thumb on the scale for you this fall, you’d feel better with Trumpist loyalist Ric Grenell riding herd than Maguire.
As for whether Russia truly would prefer Trump as president, it probably depends on the Democratic primary. Prefer him to Joe Biden or Mike Bloomberg? Sure. They’re both neoliberal hawks and internationalists, the sort of people who’d recommit to NATO. Prefer him to Bernie Sanders, though? Eh. That’s tougher. If it’s true that Putin aims to foster suspicion and discord around elections in the U.S. more so than he craves a particular outcome then he might try to double down on Trump purely as a way of delegitimizing him if he’s reelected. But I’ve always assumed that Trump will be much bolder in his Trumpy initiatives in a second term than he’s been in his first, encouraged by winning reelection and no longer having to worry about facing voters. He might very well withdraw from NATO, the Korean peninsula, and/or the Middle East in a second term. Not even Bernie would go that far, less because he’s opposed in principle than because his party loathes Russia now for its 2016 meddling and won’t want him to surrender entire regions to Putin.
So yeah, although Trump has been harder on Russia in many ways (arming Ukraine, withdrawing from the INF Treaty) than one might have assumed when he was reelected, it’s at least arguable that he’s a better bet for the Kremlin than the Democrat would be. But then, part of their goal in interfering is to encourage exactly that sort of calculus among Americans, isn’t it?