CIA Director Gina Haspel last month argued strongly at a White House meeting against disclosing the information, because she believed that doing so would violate her pledge to protect sources and methods, a senior congressional source said. This official said a bipartisan group of Republican and Democratic senators has been trying to protect Haspel, though some fear that Trump may yet oust her.
Rumors have been flying this week about Haspel’s tenure, but a source familiar with her standing as CIA director said Tuesday that national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows had both “assured her that she’s good,” meaning she wouldn’t be removed. Haspel also met personally with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) Tuesday. She sees him regularly as a member of the “Gang of Eight” senior congressional leaders. But Tuesday’s visit was another sign of GOP support.
Haspel’s most unlikely defender has been Attorney General William P. Barr, who opposed a pre-election push to declassify the sensitive material, according to three current and former officials. At a showdown meeting at the White House, Barr pushed back against revealing the secret information.
Gen. Paul Nakasone, who heads U.S. Cyber Command and the National Security Agency, has also argued vehemently against disclosure, according to a senior defense official and the senior congressional source. Like Haspel, Nakasone took the unusual step of directly opposing White House efforts to release the intelligence, because he feared the damage that disclosure would cause.
The issue may have played a role in Trump’s surprise decision on Monday to fire Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper. According to the senior defense official, Esper wrote a letter last month to John Ratcliffe, the director of national intelligence, strongly endorsing Nakasone’s position and “urging that the information not be released due to the harm it would do to national security, including specific harm to the military,” the senior defense official said.
Trump’s ceaseless attempts to argue that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” — and to force the intelligence community to declassify information he believes would support this view — may animate some of his otherwise inexplicable moves.
At the Pentagon, Trump replaced Esper with acting defense secretary Christopher Miller, a former National Security Council official who had been nominated in March to run the National Counterterrorism Center. The job was vacant because Trump had fired Russell E. Travers, the previous acting NCTC chief, who had worked closely with former acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire, who was bounced in February. Maguire’s supposed crime was that he had allowed intelligence officials to brief Congress on Russian efforts to support Trump in the 2020 election.
At the NSA, the Trump team just installed as general counsel Michael Ellis, a former chief counsel to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a locus of pro-Trump arguments that the Russia investigation was poisoned fruit. As the spy agency’s chief legal officer, Ellis could be an ally in a Ratcliffe-led campaign to declassify intelligence that would otherwise be tightly held because it might reveal sources and methods.
Senate Republicans, who might stop the post-election revenge campaign, face a growing tension between Trump’s demands and the country’s interests. The senior congressional source described it this way: “How much do you stay quiet during the tantrum period? What damage will it do to national security? That’s a real-time discussion that’s going on.”
Trump will depart the White House Jan. 20, barring an unlikely legal miracle. The question is how much damage he will do to national security before he leaves.