Trump upbraided Maguire in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, saying that the intelligence community had handed Democrats political ammunition during a bipartisan briefing a day earlier about efforts to secure the 2020 election. A senior career intelligence officer who worked for Maguire told lawmakers that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump. She also described other steps Russia is taking, including assistance to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Trump responded not by rejecting Russia’s interference or pressing his officials to work harder to deter it, but by telling Maguire and another senior career intelligence official present that they were being “played,” according to a senior White House official.
Five days later, Trump announced that Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and a presidential loyalist, would step in as the new acting director of national intelligence. Maguire was told to vacate his office at the DNI’s headquarters in Virginia by 10 a.m. the next morning, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Current and former national security officials were appalled but not surprised by Maguire’s unceremonious dispatch. “[I]n this administration, good men and women don’t last long,” retired Adm. William H. McRaven, who led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and is one of Maguire’s closest friends, wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post on Friday.
“Joe was dismissed for doing his job: overseeing the dissemination of intelligence to elected officials who needed that information to do their jobs,” McRaven wrote.
Intelligence officers are used to working with presidents who don’t enthusiastically embrace or always agree with their analysis. But Trump’s tendency to shoot the messenger puts the people working for him in a precarious position.
“Since the day Trump took office, we’ve had a president who has made clear to everyone around him that if you do things he doesn’t like, there are going to be swift and public consequences,” said Katrina Mulligan, a former National Security Council aide for the Obama administration. “So the intelligence community at this point is having to walk a tightrope. They have to provide him with information — he’s the one responsible for protecting the nation. And yet they might start to feel like they need to hold things back to avoid triggering his anger. That’s not good.”
Three other former senior intelligence officials said that Trump’s violent reactions could encourage his advisers to withhold unsettling information.
There is talk of “trying to hide” stuff, one of the former officials said, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. “Some people believe the president can’t be trusted with this politically sensitive information anymore. There’s a sense that he’s installing his guy [Grenell] and they’re going to come in and try to look for stuff, and they’re not trustworthy.”
Grenell, who has no experience in the intelligence community, is close to Trump and his children. The president delights in his boosterism on Fox News and Twitter, where Grenell frequently clashes with the president’s critics and with journalists.
Current and former intelligence officials see Grenell’s appointment, which he has said will last only until a permanent director is confirmed by the Senate, as a signal that Trump intends to exert more political control over the intelligence community.
A House intelligence committee official worried that Trump “has installed a new acting DNI to protect himself and interfere politically in the crucial work of the intelligence community, leaving our elections more vulnerable to foreign interference than ever.”
The decision to move another Trump loyalist, Kash Patel, into a senior advisory position at the intelligence director’s office further cemented that impression.
Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and most recently the top counterterrorism official on the National Security Council, has infuriated CIA and FBI personnel over his efforts to prove a conspiracy in the intelligence community to bring down the president by investigating his campaign’s possible ties to Russia in 2016.
U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously concluded that in 2016, Russia leaked emails from the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as part of an effort to harm her candidacy and boost Trump, a finding that has long riled Trump and congressional Republicans.
The recent analysis that Russia is again trying to help Trump inflamed a long-sensitive nerve.
Trump bristles at the mention of what he calls the “hoax” of Russian interference in his first campaign, current and former administration officials have said. Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen was told by acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney not to discuss the subject with the president because it would make him angry, according to current and former officials.
Trump’s frustrations with election security were on display again when he dressed down Maguire. The president questioned him about why Russia would want to help him, arguing there was no evidence to support the claim.
Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and one of Trump’s most stalwart allies on Capitol Hill, had already told Trump that Maguire’s election security coordinator, Shelby Pierson, and other officials at the briefing were unpersuasive, according to a White House official with knowledge of their conversation and the president’s argument with his intelligence advisers.
The president was upset by what he said were Pierson’s unsubstantiated comments.
“If you’re going to come in and say Russia is trying to interfere with our election, or has a preferred candidate, you better have the evidence for the president,” the official said.
But other officials said Trump had been told before about Russian interference. The analysis that Russia favored Trump may have been new, but the president already knew about Russia’s tactics and strategies heading into 2020.
One U.S. official said Pierson’s statement that Russia has “developed a preference” for Trump “may overstate the underlying intelligence.”
“The underlying intelligence doesn’t conclusively support that assessment,” the official said.
Some lawmakers told Pierson that Russia wouldn’t support Trump because he provided lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend against Russia. (Trump froze other congressionally approved aid for Ukraine while he sought Ukrainian investigations of his political rivals, actions that led to his impeachment.)
Intelligence, however, is often inconclusive. Current and former officials also noted that briefers like Pierson generally don’t share raw intelligence or the evidence underlying a broader assessment with lawmakers.
Regardless of whether Pierson overstated what’s currently known, the message from Trump to intelligence officers seemed clear.
“The entire executive branch is spooked right now because election interference in his mind is about him,” one former intelligence official said. “So you can’t do anything that isn’t essentially under the radar, or you might end up blowing up the effort.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official with direct knowledge of intelligence briefings with the president said that Trump is open to information he might not want to hear.
“We never get a briefing canceled because we give him bad news,” said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the details of intelligence briefings.
“We go in, and he treats us with respect. He listens, he asks questions, and he lets us answer those questions,” the official said. “Much of our news is bad news. Yet he invites us back.”
The official, who is familiar with briefings to former presidents, said intelligence officers understand that their job is to convey information to Trump and not to be pressured by his or others’ public comments.
“Our job isn’t to listen to Twitter,” the official said. “We are focused on and have to be able to explain everything that’s going on in the world.”
The official added, “We don’t want to leave the impression that the briefers feel any pressure” to pull punches or tell Trump what he wants to hear. “We don’t.”
Former administration officials said Trump likes to challenge the briefers on how they know what they know, which is sometimes viewed as appropriate skepticism. But other times, such as on North Korea or Russia, he will not accept their facts if they are contrary to his intentions.
Pierson, who has been the national intelligence manager for Russia, is the first election threats executive, a position created in July by then-DNI Daniel Coats to coordinate election security activities across the intelligence community. That includes monitoring different streams of intelligence that agencies collect about interference activities and intentions — the kind of information used to conclude that Russia has developed a preference that Trump be reelected.
With colleagues from other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, Pierson has sought to broaden and elevate the discussion about foreign interference threats.
“There’s been a real push to raise public awareness across the voting populace,” she said in a discussion sponsored by American University’s Tech Law and Security Program earlier this month.
Pierson also acknowledged officials were worried that election security could acquire a partisan tinge. “There was some original concern that the government doesn’t want to weigh in too heavily on this, particularly because of [the fear of it appearing to be] a political endeavor, which I think also makes these challenges . . . even more complicated,” she said.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in an interview that he had not seen any intelligence that Russia wanted to help Trump. But O’Brien said reports that Russia is helping Sanders were “no surprise,” adding that he “honeymooned in Moscow.”
As intelligence officials struggle to draw attention to election interference, Trump is purging the ranks of advisers he believes won’t strongly defend him.
Johnny McEntee, the new head of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, has asked agencies to tell him about appointees who are opposed to the president, according to a White House official.
“We want bad people out of our government!” Trump tweeted Feb. 13, the day before he met with Maguire.
The National Security Council, the State Department and the Justice Department are under particular scrutiny, according to two administration officials, and several officials there have recently resigned or been reassigned.
Experts worry that as more officials are pushed out, their replacements will have an obvious incentive to keep their heads down and not provoke Trump.
“The intelligence community plays an indispensable role in providing the best possible analysis to policymakers on threats to the nation,” said Laura Rosenberger, a former National Security Council and State Department aide in the Obama administration who works on election security issues for the Alliance for Securing Democracy.
“That analysis is essential in ensuring that policymakers can take steps to protect our national security,” Rosenberger said. “Sending a signal that the intelligence community will be penalized if it presents analysis that the president doesn’t like risks leaving our country dangerously blind to threats against it.”
Missy Ryan contributed to this report.