“We will need to delay the work of the commission until the crisis has abated to ensure that it does not interfere with the agencies that are leading the response,” Schiff explained in an email. “But that should not prevent us from beginning to identify where we got it wrong and how we can be prepared for the next pandemic.”
A review of the Trump administration’s performance would find many negatives but also some pluses. President Trump’s public statements appeared to minimize the virus and its impact until recently. But the National Security Council staff, led by deputy Matthew Pottinger, a Chinese-speaking former Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing, was aggressive. The first interagency meeting on the Wuhan outbreak took place Jan. 14, and the first NSC deputies committee meeting on Jan. 27, according to a senior administration official.
What accounts for the failure to translate this concern into action? One explosive issue in any inquiry would be whether Trump discounted intelligence warnings because of concerns about the impact of the virus on his reelection campaign. Indeed, the question implicates a broader set of concerns among Schiff and other critics about what they see as the politicization of intelligence, in particular Trump’s firing in February of Joseph Maguire and Andrew P. Hallman, the acting director of national intelligence and his deputy, respectively, and then the replacement of the top two officials at the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC).
Career officials fear that Richard Grenell, the acting DNI, is trying to shape intelligence that might challenge or embarrass Trump. “Grenell is a professional press spokesman,” said one senior retired intelligence officer, referring to Grenell’s stint as U.S. press spokesman at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration. “Over the next six months, Trump wants someone [as DNI] who has his back.”
On March 19, just after the NCTC shake-up, Grenell received a previously undisclosed cautionary letter from Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
The letter, as described by a Senate source, urged Grenell to consult with the committee before making further changes in the DNI’s office; to keep Congress fully informed about intelligence activities, as required by law; and to refrain from further personnel changes until Trump’s nominee for a permanent DNI had been confirmed or rejected by the Senate. Grenell responded briefly, the Senate source said.
Schiff said in the interview he was “concerned” that the next casualty might be Shelby Pierson, who was picked by then-DNI Daniel Coats in 2019 to direct election security efforts. Senate Intelligence Committee members have had similar worries. Pierson became a potential target after she briefed the House Intelligence Committee in February about Russia’s possible preference for Trump in the 2020 election. According to The Post, Trump was so riled when told about the briefing to Schiff’s committee that he fired Pierson’s bosses, Maguire and Hallman.
But Pierson’s position appears to be secure, for now. Maura Beard, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said Tuesday: “At no point has Acting DNI Grenell asked Shelby Pierson to leave her position. . . . She remains actively engaged in ODNI’s work to support FBI and [Department of Homeland Security] in securing our nation’s elections.”
Schiff fears that, as intelligence is politicized, career officers are becoming gun-shy. “I don’t think that there’s any question it’s affecting the work product of the intelligence community,” he told me. There’s less reporting to Congress, with fewer details, on issues that might embarrass Trump, such as election security, Schiff noted.
The coronavirus pandemic has some eerie similarities to 9/11. Trump certainly didn’t cause the virus, any more than President George W. Bush plotted Osama bin Laden’s attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. And Trump’s NSC laudably tried to ring the alarm. But did the White House “connect the dots” and take action that could have reduced the coronavirus damage?
The last thing America needs right now is more partisan squabbling. But when we’re back on our feet, the country needs to know what went wrong. The challenge, now as in 2001, is to prevent the next attack.