He made a list and checked it twice, and Sue Gordon turned out to be neither naughty nor nice enough to make the cut. Donald Trump selected retired Admiral Joseph Maguire, now chief of National Counterterrorism Center, to temporarily replace Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats when he departs on August 15th — along with Gordon. Gordon’s departure, however, was the key:
A federal statute says that if the intelligence directorship becomes vacant, the deputy director — Ms. Gordon — shall serve as acting director. But the law appears to give the president much more flexibility in choosing whom to appoint as the acting deputy if the No. 2 position is vacant.
That legal structure creates a loophole for a president who wants to evade the apparently strict limitations on who can become acting director: If both positions are vacant at the same time, the president can temporarily install someone to his liking in the No. 2 position who then will rise to serve as the acting director by virtue of the vacancy at the top.
Under the law that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, if the position of deputy director is vacant, Mr. Trump can temporarily install as the acting deputy director any sufficiently senior official in the intelligence community, or anyone else currently serving in a Senate-confirmed position in the broader executive branch.
Mr. Maguire, whom the Senate confirmed to lead the National Counterterrorism Center in December, would qualify by either method.
The writing was on the wall for Gordon a week ago. The Daily Beast reported at that time that the White House requested an org chart of senior executives in the intelligence community, which looked then like an attempt to work around Gordon as John Ratcliffe’s nomination got processed. With Ratcliffe’s departure, the issue became even more acute as the acting ODNI might be around for months.
Gordon saw the writing on the wall as well. Her resignation letter acknowledged Trump’s desire to put “a new leadership team” in place for US intelligence and that her resignation would allow Trump to do so. It pointedly does not include any other reason for resigning her position after “more than 30 years” in the intel community, making it clear that her departure is entirely political. Gordon was polite and respectful, but also uninterested in giving Trump any cover on her departure.
In return, Trump gave Gordon a polite but unenthusiastic see ya later:
….coincides with the retirement of Dan Coats. A new Acting Director of National Intelligence will be named shortly.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 8, 2019
Not that it will matter in the long run. Maguire is perhaps a fortunate find for Trump in the midst of this reshuffle, and practically designed to offset any blowback from pushing Gordon out. The Washington Post reports that the intel community is “relieved” by his ascent to acting ODNI, perhaps in comparison to Trump’s first choice to replace Coats:
Maguire, who was a Seal Team 6 commander, has extensive experience in counterterrorism operations and national security, said Mike McConnell, a former director of national intelligence who worked with Maguire during the George W. Bush administration.
“He listens, he’s deliberate and he makes good decisions. He’s the kind of guy that all the troops want to have as boss and would follow him anywhere,” McConnell said.
“Joe is a terrific leader who cares deeply about the men and women of the intelligence community,” said Nick Rasmussen, who held Maguire’s job at the counterterrorism center under Bush and President Barack Obama. “He’s someone who has always accepted the call to serve his country in whatever way is required. This is no different.”
Will Maguire get the nod for the top job? This could be a kind of audition, but it’s more likely that Trump will want more of an ally at the ODNI. This took an awful lot of work just to have a member of the intel-community establishment rise to the top. It will allow Trump to take his time in finding the next candidate, who will have to be a little more prepared for the task — and have a resumé that better fits the job’s statutory requirements.