WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump has made an unconventional pick to oversee America’s spy agencies: an unusually undiplomatic ambassador who has had little intelligence experience.
The appointment Thursday of Richard Grenell, an outspoken Trump loyalist, as acting Director of National Intelligence does little to heal the president’s fraught relations with an intelligence community he has derided as part of the “deep state” of entrenched bureaucrats that seek to undermine his agenda.
But it follows the logic of an administration that prizes loyalty and has a penchant for “acting” Cabinet secretaries who don’t require a potentially bruising Senate confirmation.
The background of Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany since April 2018, is primarily in politics and media affairs. He lacks the extensive national security and military experience of the acting director he replaces, Joseph Maguire, as well as previous holders of the position. Such experience appears to be required under the 2004 law that created the post to coordinate the work of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies.
“He is probably the most unqualified individual ever appointed to this position,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former longtime intelligence agency official who helped establish the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in response to Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
But Grenell has support among the president’s backers on Capitol Hill. “Ric has a proven track record of fighting for our country, and now, he will work every day to make sure Americans are safe,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Ca., said on Twitter.
In announcing Grenell’s appointment, the White House pointed to his diplomatic background and work as a spokesman for the US mission to the United Nations. Trump said on Twitter that “Rick has represented our Country exceedingly well.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham insisted Thursday that Grenell would serve without a partisan agenda.
“He is committed to a non-political, non-partisan approach as head of the Intelligence Community, on which our safety and security depend,” she said in a statement.
“The president has every confidence that Ambassador Grenell will perform his new duties with distinction,” she added.
He takes charge after a period of tension between Trump and intelligence professionals over Russian interference in the 2016 election, which the president has played down.
The appointment also fits a pattern of appointing “acting” Cabinet secretaries, who can serve for limited periods and do not have to undergo confirmation fights in the Senate.
Grenell, who is apparently the first openly gay Cabinet member in any administration, said on Twitter that he expects to hold the job only on a temporary basis. “The President will announce the Nominee (not me) sometime soon,” he said.
He will also continue to keep his ambassador post as well as a third job as Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations, according to a US official in Germany. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to respond to questions not addressed in a brief White House statement on the Grenell appointment.
Former officials expressed shock that Grenell would try to take on two of those jobs at the same time, let alone all three.
“What it signals is that Donald Trump is now making clear what we long suspected: That he has no use for a Director of National Intelligence,” said Ned Price, a former CIA officer who served as a special assistant to President Barack Obama on the National Security Council.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, accused Trump of knowing that Grenell would not win Senate confirmation and showing “contempt for our Constitution’s system of checks and balances.”
“Sadly, President Trump has once again put his political interests ahead of America’s national security interests by appointing an acting director of national intelligence whose sole qualification is his absolute loyalty to the president,” she said in a statement.
Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat on the intelligence committee, accused Trump of prioritizing “unquestioning obedience over the safety of the American people.”
“Mr Grenell’s endorsement of the European far right, his gratuitous conflicts with our German allies and his lack of intelligence experience disqualify him on all counts,” he said in a statement.
Democratic Senator Ed Markey said he expected Grenell “will remain a political yes-man for Trump as he is in Berlin.”
The Director of National Intelligence was created in response to the findings of the 9/11 Commission, which concluded that federal agencies failed to share valuable intelligence before the attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
The 2004 law establishing the position says the director “shall have extensive national security expertise.”
Current acting Director Maguire, who was required to leave soon under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, had been director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center and had a 36-year career as a Naval Special Warfare Officer. The vacancies law sets limits on acting appointees in senior posts.
Previous directors have included retired Vice Adm. John “Mike” McConnell, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper and Dan Coats, who served on the Intelligence Committee as a Republican senator from Indiana in addition to being a diplomat.
Grenell may only be able to serve legally for a few more weeks. The Vacancies Reform Act allows the president to name an acting office holder for a limited period following the departure of the previous permanent one, in this case Coats. That clock would expire on March 11 unless Trump were to nominate a new permanent director before then, in which case Grenell could stay on, said Stephen Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor.
One benefit that Grenell brings, Pfeiffer said, is his strong relationship with the president, who has disputed intelligence findings that Russia interfered on his behalf in the 2016 election.
“It’s always good for the head of your intel community to be in good with the president,” said Pfeiffer, director of the Hayden Center for Intelligence Policy and International Security at George Mason University. “But beyond that his national security experience, though spanning a number of years, has always has all been in the communications and public relations spin category and I’m not sure that’s ideally suited for speaking truth to power.”
Much like the president who appointed him, Grenell is a voracious tweeter whose posts have frequently been criticized for crossing the line between fair criticism and mean-spirited trolling. During a brief stint as a foreign affairs spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, Grenell deleted hundreds of past tweets goading media figures and mocking well-known female politicians for their appearance.
Since arriving in Germany as ambassador in 2018, Grenell has rankled many in the political establishment by openly criticizing German policies, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome more than a million asylum seekers in 2015-16, while praising Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has taken a hard line on migration, as a “rock star.”
Dating from his time as spokesman for former US Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, Grenell has had an antagonistic relationship with members of the media, whom he frequently criticizes for perceived liberal bias. He has issued demands for retractions and corrections over unfavorable reports later confirmed to be accurate.
Last month, he took to Twitter when The Washington Post reported the Trump administration threatened to impose a 25 percent tariff on vehicles manufactured in three European countries, including Germany, unless they met U.S. demands for actions against Iran.
Grenell slammed the Post reporter who wrote the story for “Fake News.”
The following day, a German foreign ministry official confirmed the Trump tariff threat in a briefing to a parliamentary committee.