The ouster of former congressman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) from Donald Trump’s transition team is a worrisome sign of continuing internecine battles in the GOP and the ascendancy of Trump’s personal political allies in shaping the president-elect’s agenda.
Rogers, a widely respected former FBI agent who headed the House Intelligence Committee, had been seen as a figure of stability and continuity in intelligence matters. He was mentioned as a possible next director of the CIA or director of national intelligence. But Rogers was told last weekend by Rick Dearborn, executive director of the transition team, that he was being removed from his role in the national-security group advising Trump. He was replaced by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who took over as the committee’s chairman after Rogers left Congress in 2014 and has been a far more partisan chairman.
Rogers had angered House GOP hard-liners when his committee issued a bipartisan report in 2014 clearing Hillary Clinton of personal wrongdoing in the 2012 Benghazi incident. That report was characteristic of the way Rogers chaired the committee, in a working partnership with then-ranking Democrat, Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (Md.). (Rogers added “additional views” that criticized “senior State Department officials” for dismissing threat warnings, denying requests for extra security in eastern Libya and other errors.)
But this consensual approach clearly didn’t suit Trump’s inner circle. Rogers had been brought into the transition by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), another official with bipartisan credentials, who was ousted himself a week ago and replaced by Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Some GOP insiders see the real power behind Trump as his son-in-law Jared Kushner, and they argue that there has been bad blood between Kushner and Christie for more than a decade. In 2005, when he was U.S. attorney, Christie obtained a guilty plea from Charles Kushner, Jared’s father, on charges of tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions.
Christie was quoted in the New York Times after the elder Kushner was sentenced to two years in federal prison: “This sends a strong message that when you commit the vile and heinous acts that he has committed you will be caught and punished.”
According to GOP insiders, the most likely picks for CIA director include Nunes and former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (Mich.), who served on the House intelligence panel; former Defense Intelligence Agency chief Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn is being considered as well, though there are doubts he could be confirmed. A wild card mentioned by one source is former Defense Department official Frank Gaffney. All four are known as combative personalities who disdain the bipartisan approach that Rogers represented.
A sign of Rogers’s wide range of friends and contacts was a dinner party he gave Monday night at his Virginia home for some producers and cast members of the television drama “Homeland.” It was attended by CIA Director John Brennan, National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers, and several prominent members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Rogers didn’t mention to his guests that he had been informed several days before of his removal from the transition.
Rogers has been a strong advocate for the CIA and other intelligence agencies, and a critic of some efforts to restrict intelligence activities. But he was seen by many CIA officers as a political figure who, like former CIA director Leon Panetta (another former congressman), would have had the political influence to shield the agency from attack.
A speech he gave last month to the Heritage Foundation illustrated one area where he might have disagreed with Trump, who favors conciliation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, “The Russians are certainly on the march,” Rogers said. “Russia’s change in the way they have used their cyber policy will give you a bead of sweat.”
Rogers issued a generous statement Tuesday reiterating his strong support for Trump. “America’s challenges domestically and overseas are so enormous that we needed to move in a drastically different direction for our country,” he said.
Just how far the new administration may depart from long-standing U.S. national-security policies was demonstrated by Rogers’s own departure.
You could imagine the jaws dropping Tuesday across the intelligence community when people heard the news of Rogers’s ouster. “He fought for the guys in the field and has their respect,” said one former top aide to Rogers. Like most of the rest of the government, the intelligence agencies literally don’t know what to expect next.