Step One: The intelligence official in charge of election security delivers the required briefing at a closed-door session of the House Intelligence Committee and informs the members of that committee that a) Russia has already engaged in interfering with the 2020 election, b) it is trying to sow dissension among Democrats, and c) the ultimate goal is to support Trump.
Step Two: Republicans on that committee rush to Donald Trump, not to warn him about Russian interference but to complain that Democrats know about the interference. Trump responds by hauling in the acting director of national intelligence, raking him over the coals, and replacing him with a man whose entire skill set consists of making hate-tweets and promoting Russia.
Step Three: Chaos. Only … not enough chaos.
On Friday morning, NBC News was one of several outlets reporting a “near meltdown” in the intelligence community after the news was released that acting direct of national intelligence Joseph Maguire was to be replaced by xenophobic hate-bomb specialist Richard Grenell. Much of what’s happening inside the ODNI hasn’t become public, but there has apparently been enough pushback that Trump has already announced that Grenell will be a short-term appointment until he picks someone else.
Then, on Thursday evening, Trump offered the role to Doug Collins—an offer that still seems to be open. But Collins has already declared that he doesn’t want the job, because he’s still intent on running for a Senate slot in Georgia, a task that’s been complicated by Trump’s praise for the recently appointed Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler.
As of Friday morning, Trump has announced that he will be appointing someone other than Grenell, but who that someone will be is still up in the air. In the meantime, the intelligence community has joined the Judiciary Community at full boil. It’s become absolutely clear that Trump is purging intelligence officials whose only crime is that they provided accurate intelligence to a committee that is not just cleared, but required to receive that information.
When word came that Maguire was being swapped out for Grenell, the initial reaction was a mixture of two parts disgust and one part puzzlement. Grenell has absolutely no experience in intelligence, and he’s never run so much as a shoe store. What he has done in his short time as U.S. ambassador to Germany is offend American allies and widen the fractures in the NATO alliance as he praised neo-fascist leaders, attacked his host country for admitting refugees, and defended Russian leader Vladimir Putin. But of course, Republican leaders in Congress rushed to applaud this appointment, even as everyone else scratched their heads.
It didn’t take long before the reasons behind the intelligence makeover became clear. At a closed-door briefing for the House Intelligence Committee last Thursday, intelligence official Shelby Pierson provided a required update on what the intelligence community knew about the security of the 2020 election. Pierson revealed that Russia was already actively engaged in interfering in the upcoming election, and that it was interfering for the purpose of supporting Donald Trump.
Republicans present at that meeting—who included Devin Nunes, Mike Conaway, and John Ratcliffe—rushed to the White House in concern. But they were not concerned about the Russian interference. They were concerned that Democrats knew about the interference. Trump shared that concern and seemed to be convinced that Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff had been given some special information, though there seems to be no indication that this is true.
Trump then called in acting DNI Joseph Maguire and reamed him out for allowing Pierson to give a long-scheduled and congressionally mandated briefing. Even though Maguire had been instrumental in trying to block the intelligence community whistleblower report that started off the impeachment investigation of Trump from ever seeing the light of day, that little favor did not seem to cool Trump’s fire. At the end of the day, he canned Maguire and went looking for someone who would be loyal to Trump rather than to the nation.
What’s happening at both the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence at this moment is a last stand by those who have some concern other than protecting Trump’s political interests. What’s most frightening is just how small that group of fighters appears to be.