WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump made the decision to cast out his top intelligence official following a classified briefing to lawmakers about election security, according to reports.
The Washington Post and The New York Times said Thursday the president was irate after learning of last week's briefing to members of the House Intelligence Committee, concerned that officials had shared information that could be used against him.
Trump then called acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to his office the next day, when he ultimately decided to replace him.
"There was a dressing down" of Maguire, a source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told the Post. "That was the catalyst."
According to the Times, the president's anger was sparked by an assessment from one of Maguire's top aides, Shelby Pierson, who told lawmakers that Russia has been interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, seeking to get Trump reelected.
Officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its election security office declined comment when contacted by VOA.
A request for comment to the White House also went unanswered, but reaction from Democratic lawmakers has been swift.
"I am gravely concerned," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said in a statement late Thursday.
"The president puts ego above country," he added. "By firing Acting DNI Maguire because his staff provided the candid conclusions of the Intelligence Community to Congress regarding Russian meddling in the 2020 presidential election, the president is not only refusing to defend against foreign interference, he's inviting it."
The rocky relationship between Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies dates back to the 2016 presidential election, when the intelligence community concluded, "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible," the leading U.S. intelligence agencies wrote in an unclassified report released in 2017.
Those conclusions were backed up by a report in April 2019 by special counsel Robert Mueller, which found, "the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome."
But Trump has consistently denied any Russian interference, repeatedly deferring to Putin's denials.
"He said he didn't meddle," Trump told reporters following a conversation with Putin in Vietnam. "He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times."
Still, U.S. intelligence officials have said, repeatedly, that not only did Russia meddle in 2016, but that it did so again in 2018 and that it would meddle in the 2020 presidential elections, as well.
"We expect #Russia will continue to wage its information war against democracies and to use social media to attempt to divide our societies" per Coats, citing #Russian attack on #Ukraine naval vessels as sign of #Moscow's willingness to violate int' norms— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) January 29, 2019
"It wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here," Mueller told lawmakers last July. "And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
More recently, U.S. allies have warned of the Kremlin intent to interfere in the upcoming elections.
"This year, for example, Russia's focus will certainly be on the U.S.," Estonia's Foreign Intelligence Service warned in a report earlier this month.
"The main goal is to ensure a more beneficial election result for Russia by favoring Russian-friendly candidates or those who have the most divisive influence in the West," it said.
U.S. lawmakers have also warned about continued Russian meddling in a series of bipartisan reports by the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of which cautioned the president against using election meddling for political advantage.
"The president of the United States should take steps to separate himself or herself from political considerations when handling issues related to foreign influence operations," a committee report issued earlier this month said.
The bipartisan Senate Intel report also urged that @POTUS, no matter who it was, "should take steps to separate himself or herself from political considerations when handling issues related to foreign influence operations" https://t.co/Fv3dBg4Xea— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) February 20, 2020
The U.S. has been without a permanent director of national intelligence since mid-August 2019, when Dan Coats stepped down following a series of public clashes with Trump over intelligence assessments.
Already, some former intelligence officials and analysts had been expressing concern about fending off foreign information operations from Russia and others without an experienced official to lead the intelligence agencies.
Now, with Maguire gone, their concerns are growing.
"I think Joseph Maguire did as well as he could, under difficult circumstances, to stave off corruption of the intelligence community's mission," said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer now with Georgetown University.
But with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a well-known Trump loyalist, stepping in, that could become more difficult.
"Grenell not only has no intelligence experience, which is a negative, but is very much a partisan fighter and ideologue," Pillar said. "Having Grenell as acting DNI promises to politicize the intelligence community more than it has been to date so far under Trump."
James Clapper, who served as director of national intelligence under President Barack Obama, told VOA: "It is bad for continuity and stability. The over-arching message is the president simply doesn't care, and simply wants a hood ornament loyalist sitting in the chair."
But Grenell, who is also continuing to serve as ambassador to Germany and as Special Envoy for Serbia-Kosovo Negotiations, said on Thursday the position would be filled on a permanent basis, just not by him.
"The President will announce the Nominee (not me) sometime soon," he tweeted.
Correct. Acting. The President will announce the Nominee (not me) sometime soon. https://t.co/9ShqB2eXea— Richard Grenell (@RichardGrenell) February 20, 2020
So far, there has been no word from the White House on just when such an announcement will be made, though it is facing a hard deadline.
By law, the acting director, whether it was Maguire or Grenell, will have to step down March 11, 210 days after the position was first vacated.
"The clock doesn't restart each time the president names someone else [as acting director]," Steve Vladek, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told VOA.
"If no nominee is submitted in time, Grenell ceases to be the acting DNI, and no one can replace him," he added. "Someone still has to 'exercise the functions' of the acting DNI, but that would fall to whoever the senior person at ODNI currently is."
Whether Trump would allow a veteran of the intelligence community to take the reins, though, is questionable.
"Trump seems to want politics from the IC [intelligence community], not facts," said Joshua Geltzer, who served on the National Security Council in the Obama White House.
"Grenell has provided politics via Twitter as ambassador," he said. "This is a clear choice for the latter, and it seems destined to make the IC wary of speaking truth when there's less interest in hearing it."
In a statement Thursday, the White House expressed confidence in Grenell, for as long as he serves.
"The president has every confidence that Ambassador Grenell will perform his new duties with distinction," press secretary Stephanie Grisham said. "He is committed to a nonpolitical, nonpartisan approach as head of the Intelligence Community, on which our safety and security depend."
Yet despite accolades from the White House, the selection of Grenell to lead U.S. intelligence has met with silence from many Republicans, including Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr.
One of the first Republicans to speak out was Burr's fellow Intelligence Committee member, Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri.
"If you're ambassador for some time in a country like Germany, you have a lot of exposure to intel activities and daily briefings and other things," he told Politico of Grenell. "He's a very smart, capable guy."
House Minority Leader Republican Kevin McCarthy also offered praise for Grenell, saying he "has a proven track record of fighting for our country, and now, he will work every day to make sure Americans are safe."
President Trump made a great choice to name @RichardGrenell as America’s next Acting Director of National Intelligence. Ric has a proven track record of fighting for our country, and now, he will work every day to make sure Americans are safe. https://t.co/Gzajq5vQUt— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) February 20, 2020
White House Bureau Chief Steve Herman and correspondent Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.