Early Thursday, a resigning State Department official made a splash by writing a Washington Post op-ed declaring he was exiting because he could no longer justify “my complicity in the actions of this administration.”
Late Thursday, the No. 2 official in the office of the director of national intelligence, Sue Gordon, offered a more subtle protest of Trump’s decisions — and a potential warning sign of what lay ahead.
In a note accompanying the letter announcing her resignation, Gordon let it be known that she was not leaving by choice:
Mr. President –
I offer this letter as an act of respect & patriotism, not preference. You should have your team.
The note comes at an inauspicious time for the office that coordinates the various intelligence agencies in the U.S. government. The top official there, former senator Daniel Coats (R-Ind.), recently announced his resignation effective next week. Coats occasionally clashed with Trump and made it clear he wasn’t exactly happy with some of Trump’s actions and comments about the intelligence community. Most notably, he reacted with demonstrable disbelief when he learned, onstage, that Trump would hold a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He later disclosed that nobody really knew what the two men talked about in that meeting — a remarkable admission for the head of U.S. intelligence.
Coats was viewed as a steadying force in an administration increasingly chock-full of yes-men and -women in jobs that are generally supposed to be insulated from the White House and politics.
In seeking a contrast to Coats, Trump soon tapped Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.), a political loyalist with a thin intelligence résumé, to take over, but Ratcliffe quickly withdrew after multiple reports involving alleged résumé-inflation. With Trump having made his political intentions clear and the job in flux, there were increasing questions about whether Gordon, the logical pick to lead the DNI in at least an acting capacity, would be allowed to do so. Many leading lawmakers — from both parties — reportedly urged Trump to promote Gordon. A career intelligence official who served a quarter-century in the CIA, she appeared eminently qualified. Trump professed to liking Gordon, but the two didn’t have much of a relationship.
Now Trump has gone in a different direction, tapping Joseph Maguire, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting DNI. The Post’s Shane Harris and Ellen Nakashima report Gordon was “heartbroken” by being passed over.
Her decision to memorialize her disappointment in a note is significant. Top government officials often resign voluntarily when the president no longer desires their service, but they generally don’t let it be known that they were forced out. It’s possible this is just Gordon’s personal disappointment boiling over, but you don’t write a note like that unless you’re trying to convey something. And it’s an especially conspicuous decision for a career intelligence officer, a job that is big on deference to authority and where notoriety is seen as something to be avoided.
It’s not difficult to read Gordon’s letter as a warning sign about where she fears the DNI might be headed going forward. Trump has made little secret of his disdain for some of the intelligence community’s actions and conclusions, and Ratcliffe’s nomination clearly indicated Trump would like more of a loyalist in that job.
The intelligence community was apparently heartened by Maguire’s promotion to acting director. Even though he’s not a career intelligence officer, he has extensive government experience as a former SEAL Team 6 commander and served in various roles involving national security and counterterrorism. Top intelligence officials in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations praised his elevation.
But there is still the matter of who gets the job full time. And Gordon’s note should serve as a flashing red light. Will Trump try to go the Ratcliffe route again? Gordon may have made it more difficult to do so.