President Donald Trump has spent months trying to remake the Justice Department in Fox News’ image. Now he’s trying to do the same thing to the U.S. intelligence community.
It is a truism that Trump gets his morning intelligence briefing from the propagandists at Fox. The network’s programming firmly slants the news in favor of Trump’s personal interests, and the president appears to expect no less from the U.S. intelligence community. When U.S. intelligence instead produces information that hurts him politically -- on North Korea, or the Middle East, or Russia -- he denies the facts and attacks the people who brought them to light.
This discrepancy could only last so long. Trump views federal agencies as extensions of his personal whim, and it is anathema to him that the job of the intelligence community might involve impartially providing accurate information. Just as he decries Fox when it diverts even slightly from pure propaganda, he wants U.S. intelligence agencies to cater to his political biases and operate for his personal benefit.
Trump tried to bend the U.S. intelligence community to his will last year. Then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats lost the president’s support by publicly disputing his national security claims -- especially about Russia. Trump’s first pick to replace Coats was Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX), who had virtually no intelligence experience. But he did have the type of experience Trump values: He had been one of Trump’s most ardent defenders on Fox, using the platform to harangue against special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election interference.
Ratcliffe’s nomination quickly fizzled out after Republican senators raised concerns about his lack of formal qualifications. Trump then passed over Susan Gordon, the career intelligence official who had been Coats’ deputy, reportedly suspicious she was insufficiently loyal to him. He settled on Joseph Maguire, a retired Navy admiral who had led the National Counterterrorism Center.
Maguire’s record -- assessed by the only measure the president uses: personal loyalty to himself -- was uneven. He initially blocked the Ukraine whistleblower’s complaint from reaching Congress, handing it over only after the House began impeachment proceedings. He reportedly threatened to resign if he were not permitted to testify fully in hearings on that complaint (Maguire and the White House both denied this). During those hearings, Maguire did not criticize the whistleblower but also did not say the complaint was worthy of investigation, and he refused to say whether he had discussed it with the president. And Trump reportedly berated Maguire earlier this month after learning that one of his subordinates had briefed members of Congress that Russia was interfering with the 2020 election to help Trump’s campaign. Apparently fed up, Trump announced he was pushing out the acting DNI on Wednesday.
Maguire’s replacement shows where this is going. Trump has named Richard Grenell as the new acting director of national intelligence. Grenell, a former Republican political consultant, spokesperson for the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, and the current ambassador to Germany, is totally unqualified by the post’s typical measures. But he had two marks in his favor: He is a shamelessly fanatical Trump loyalist, and he used to be a Fox contributor. What better way to align U.S. intelligence with Fox propaganda than to put a former network employee in charge?
The news Maguire was out and Grenell was in thrilled Fox, with pro-Trump hosts like Lou Dobbs specifically praising the latter’s loyalty to Trump. But it hit the intelligence community like a bomb. Maguire’s deputy is reportedly following his boss out the door. Another Trump loyalist from the National Security Council is being installed in a senior position advising Grenell. Current and former officials are stunned. The DNI’s office “is nearing a meltdown,” one told NBC News.
Grenell will reportedly serve only on a temporary basis, in no small part because Republican senators balked at the prospect of confirming him to the post. That leaves Trump still looking for a permanent director of national intelligence to continue wreaking whatever havoc Grenell starts.
The first name the president floated suggests he will be looking for more of the same. He told reporters Thursday night that he was considering Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) for the post. A fourth-term congressman who doesn’t serve on the relevant intelligence committee, Collins has even less relevant experience than Ratcliffe or Grenell. But like them, he has the crucial qualification of regularly defending the president on Fox. Collins immediately removed himself from consideration, but there’s no reason to think that the candidate Trump eventually settles on will have a different profile.
We’ve seen all of this before. Trump wanted the Justice Department to prioritize his personal and political interests. When he felt that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wasn’t living up to that goal, he pushed him out, and eventually replaced him with someone who would. Over the last year, William Barr has been covering up Trump’s misdeeds, trying to get his associates off the hook, ginning up investigations of his perceived foes, and pushing out prosecutors who won’t get with that program. And Fox has been cheering him every step of the way.
Now it’s the intelligence community’s turn to face the prospect of being used as a tool for the president's personal interests and political gain. Before long, U.S. intelligence reports might come to resemble something out of Fox & Friends.