Sue Gordon, a career intelligence officer who became the second-highest-ranking official in the U.S. intelligence community, quietly went to the White House on Thursday evening to give President Trump her resignation, along with a handwritten note: “You should have your team.”
The unenviable task of leading that team now falls to retired Adm. Joseph Maguire, a decorated Navy SEAL who until last year had been running a nonprofit foundation that pays for the education of surviving children of Special Operations troops killed in the line of duty.
Maguire is the current director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), tapped for that post by Trump in June 2018.
The president and Maguire don’t know each other well, said current and former national security officials, who said they were relieved at Maguire’s selection after Trump previously tried to install a political loyalist as the permanent director of national intelligence. They said they see Maguire as a principled public servant, if not the most experienced candidate to lead the intelligence agencies, unlike the outgoing Gordon, who was steeped in the inner workings of the vast intelligence bureaucracy.
Maguire’s long military career involved significant work with intelligence on a tactical and strategic level, and he previously served at the NCTC in a deputy position for three years.
But even his strongest backers concede that his résumé doesn’t rank against some previous intelligence directors who spent their entire careers in that field, though they noted his leadership skills and ability to connect with those he oversees.
“Whether it’s in a military command or in a place like NCTC, he’d spend a certain amount of almost every day walking around the organization just talking to people,” said Michael Nagata, a former Army Special Forces officer who retired this month as NCTC’s strategy director. “On several occasions, I remember people telling me he’d come up to them, and they either didn’t know they were talking to the director or they’d find out later and say, ‘Holy crap, I’ve never had a conversation with the director of the NCTC before.’ ”
“He’s a team builder. He’s a people person,” said a former national security official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid. “It’s one of his strongest attributes.”
“Maguire is amiable but won’t be afraid to speak truthfully and forcefully to the president,” a former senior intelligence official said. “Joe’s a man of principle. Don’t mistake friendly and affable and a good listener and a good leader with not being tough.”
Speaking candidly will be one of his challenges with a president who has dismissed or belittled intelligence officials who have offered analyses that contradicted Trump’s views on subjects as critical as the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran.
Why Trump chose Maguire is unclear. He had told his aides that he didn’t want Gordon to become the acting director when Daniel Coats, the current No. 1, resigns on Aug. 15, ending his sometimes fraught relationship with the White House.
Trump and some of his family and close allies were said to have regarded Gordon with suspicion.
In a tweet last week, Donald Trump Jr. called Gordon “besties with Brennan and the rest of the clown cadre,” referring to former CIA director John Brennan, one of Trump’s fiercest critics. Brennan and Gordon worked closely together at the CIA, where she spent 27 years.
In a farewell letter to colleagues, Gordon made no mention of any tensions with the White House. “As I start my own new adventure, I will rest easy knowing that you are on the Nation’s watch,” she wrote.
Maguire also has strong ties to one of the president’s critics. His best friend is famed retired Adm. William McRaven, who led the operation that killed Osama bin Laden. The former senior intelligence official, who knows Maguire and McRaven, described them as “comrades in arms.” In his memoir, McRaven said that the two have known each other since their early days serving in the Philippines and that Maguire, his wife and their two children have long been the McRaven family’s “closest friends.”
Last year, McRaven rebuked Trump’s constant attacks on the media, calling the president’s statements the “greatest threat to our democracy in my lifetime.” In an open letter to Trump, published last year in The Washington Post, McRaven said he “would consider it an honor if you would revoke my security clearance,” after Trump said he would pull Brennan’s clearance for criticizing him on television and on Twitter.
It is not clear how long Maguire will serve. There is no time limit on acting directors, said Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. He noted that by law, the NCTC director cannot hold another position, which means that as of Aug. 15, the positions of intelligence director, deputy director and head of the NCTC will all be vacant.
“Everyone sees the acting position as a temporary thing,” said David Priess, a former analyst and daily intelligence briefer at the CIA. “In terms of getting a long-term congressional buy-in for an intelligence program or a legislative issue, an acting director doesn’t have the heft and credibility of a Senate-confirmed choice.”
On Capitol Hill, the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said they supported Maguire but were angered that Gordon was forced out. She enjoyed strong bipartisan support.
Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) issued a brief statement: “I’ve known Admiral Maguire for some time and I have confidence in his ability to step into this critical role.”
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chairman, noted the challenge Maguire will face.
“His success or failure in this position will be judged by the quality of work produced by the intelligence community, not by how those intelligence products make the president feel,” Warner said.