The 2004 law that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence specifies that it must be headed by someone with “extensive national security expertise.” Previous occupants of the post had decades of relevant experience in fields such as intelligence, diplomacy and the military. The least experienced was Trump’s first appointee, Dan Coats, but even he had spent a quarter-century in Congress, including three years on the Senate Intelligence Committee, followed by nearly four years as ambassador to Germany. Compared to Grenell, though, Coats looks like the second coming of Allen Dulles and “Wild Bill” Donovan combined.
“Ric” Grenell has no intelligence background. He spent the George W. Bush administration as the spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where he developed a terrible reputation among reporters. The veteran Reuters correspondent Irwin Arieff told HuffPost that Grenell was “the most dishonest and deceptive press person I ever worked with. He often lied.” That is a big problem, given that the job of the DNI is to tell the truth — including uncomfortable truths that the president would rather not hear.
After leaving the Bush administration, Grenell became a public relations consultant, Fox News talking head and Twitter troll. In 2012, he was hired and quickly fired by the Romney campaign as its foreign policy spokesman after his abusive tweets came to light, many of which denigrated women in highly personal terms. (Another factor in Grenell’s dismissal was that he is openly gay, which offended the Christian right.)
Grenell became a noxious pro-Trump troll in 2015-2016. He claimed that a Gold Star father criticized Trump to enrich himself, called the Democratic convention an “anti-police” rally and suggested that a female journalist slept her way into her job. He badgered and harassed journalists online (including me). He was such a Trump toady that he even acquired “Gold” level status at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
This flackery led to Grenell’s appointment as ambassador to Germany — a post he finally took up in 2018 after a Senate confirmation battle. He offended his hosts from Day One, issuing a Twitter diktat that “German companies doing business in Iran should wind down operations immediately.” Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, told him “never tell the host country what to do, if you want to stay out of trouble.” But Grenell continued to offend by announcing his intention to “empower” right-wing populists throughout Europe. Grenell was widely seen as spreading Trumpism in Europe rather than representing the U.S. government. His biggest achievement was in his recent role as a special envoy to Serbia and Kosovo — he got those countries to reopen rail links.
Given Grenell’s lack of intelligence qualifications, it’s doubtful that even a Republican-controlled Senate would confirm him as DNI. But while Senate opposition dissuaded Trump from nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) last year after Coats’s departure, it won’t stop Grenell from assuming the job in an “acting” capacity even while he nominally remains ambassador to Germany.
Grenell’s appointment is Trump’s latest move to take complete control of any institutions that might challenge his authoritarian designs. Coats incurred Trump’s wrath by issuing unvarnished intelligence assessments that confirmed that Russia had attacked the 2016 election and that Iran was in compliance with the nuclear accord. That kind of truth-telling is the last thing Trump wants.
Coats’s temporary replacement, Joseph Maguire, also failed to protect Trump as he expects to be protected. The New York Times reported that Maguire’s ouster came after one of his aides briefed the House Intelligence Committee last week that Russia is attempting to intervene again in the U.S. election, in an effort to reelect Trump. The Post reported that Trump erupted at Maguire over what the president views as disloyalty. Think about that: Trump regards efforts to protect the integrity of our elections as a firing offense. So now Maguire is out as DNI, and Grenell is in.
By appointing a partisan propagandist to a post that requires strict nonpartisanship, Trump is ensuring that the acting DNI in this election year will place his interests above those of the country. Given that Trump has consistently said he would accept foreign election help — indeed, he tried to blackmail Ukraine into helping him — that is a terrifying prospect for the future of our democracy. There are, mercifully, institutional checks to limit a DNI’s ability to weaponize the intelligence community on behalf of the president’s personal interests. With Grenell at the helm, we are likely to see those safeguards tested as never before.