Grenell to ODNI: Breakthrough appointment or ideological takeover?

Grenell to ODNI: Breakthrough appointment or ideological takeover?

Or both? Probably both, but at least one of these isn’t unprecedented. Donald Trump appointed US Ambassador Richard Grenell to take over as acting director of national intelligence, replacing currently-acting ODNI Joseph Maguire. That makes Grenell the first openly-gay Cabinet member in US history, a point that — not surprisingly — isn’t getting a lot of credit from the media coverage.

Grenell’s track record of political support for Trump is, however:

President Donald Trump announced that Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, will become acting director of national intelligence, a move that puts a staunch Trump ally in charge of the nation’s 17 spy agencies, which the president has only tepidly embraced.

“Rick has represented our Country exceedingly well and I look forward to working with him,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.A White House statement Thursday said Grenell “is committed to a nonpolitical, nonpartisan approach″ to the job.

Grenell follows Joseph Maguire, who has been acting national intelligence director since August. It was unclear if Maguire would return to the National Counterterrorism Center. “I would like to thank Joe Maguire for the wonderful job he has done,” Trump tweeted, “and we look forward to working with him closely, perhaps in another capacity within the Administration!”

Grenell, a loyal and outspoken Trump supporter, becomes the first openly gay member of Trump’s Cabinet. He has been the U.S. ambassador to Germany since 2018. He previously served as U.S. spokesman at the United Nations in the George W. Bush administration, including under then-Ambassador John Bolton.

Actually, it appears that Grenell is the first openly gay Cabinet member of any administration. Perhaps the impact of that is lower these days as these “firsts” become more ubiquitous and less notable. Or perhaps it’s just that the media isn’t as interested in them when they take place in Republican administrations.

Back to the substance of the appointment — whatever Grenell’s approach, it will only last seven months. The Federal Vacancies Act only allows that long for an “acting” appointment without a follow-up formal nomination, which means that Grenell can only hold this job until the middle of September at the longest. Grenell himself announced that he will not be the nominee for a permanent replacement for Dan Coats, whose resignation put Maguire in charge until now:

That’s too long for Grenell’s critics, who claim his lack of experience is unprecedented for this position. Even the New York Times notes that’s not quite true, although he might be the most openly partisan selection:

While intelligence directors have tried to serve as neutral arbiters of facts, Mr. Grenell’s experience as an ideological advocate prompted some former officials to express concern that he could color the intelligence he presents to Mr. Trump rather than present an objective assessment.

“This is a job requiring leadership, management, substance and secrecy,” said John Sipher, a former C.I.A. officer. “He doesn’t have the kind of background and experience we would expect for such a critical position.” …

He would be the latest in a line of intelligence directors who have had varied policy experience including diplomatic or military backgrounds rather than stints in the intelligence world.

But Mr. Grenell is also an acerbic combatant who throws regular punches at “fake news” reporters and Mr. Trump’s opponents online.

The ODNI position only has a sixteen-year history, and the position has generally gone to former command officers in the military — Mike McConnell, Dennis Blair, and James Clapper, for instance. The first ODNI, John Negroponte, also came out of the ambassadorial ranks, but he spent decades in the State Department before getting the appointment. However, political appointments are more common for the CIA, including former Reps. Porter Goss and Mike Pompeo, and Clinton political adviser Leon Panetta — who actually did a credible job in the position. Panetta’s appointment also raised questions about a lack of experience in intelligence and in running large bureaucracies (other than being Clinton’s chief of staff for two and a half years).

The fulminating over a political appointment at ODNI is therefore quite a bit overblown, especially given its temporary nature (and part-time nature, too, as Grenell will remain US Ambassador to Germany). The real problem for the intel community will come if/when Trump picks a military command officer ally for the post with the requisite credentials to sail through a confirmation hearing. People have laughed up their sleeve about the intel community pushing back against Trump, but to the extent they’ve been doing that, they have left themselves open for presidential pushback, too. That’s the risk of playing politics — you don’t always get to win.

At any rate, congratulations to Ambassador Grenell for his new groundbreaking appointment. Let’s hope everyone rises to the occasion and gets back to business.

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