President Trump selected an unqualified loyalist as his top spy. We know what happens next.
by Jonathan Stevenson
A crazy optimist might have hoped that the impeachment trial, gutted though it was by Senate Republicans, would chasten rather than embolden President Trump, prompting a new judiciousness in his execution of his duties. Forget about that. His naming of Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany, as acting director of national intelligence has completely dashed any such hopes.
Mr. Grenell has no experience as an intelligence officer at any level, nor has he overseen a large government bureaucracy. He has served in government only as communications director for the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. during the George W. Bush administration, and since May 2018 as ambassador to Germany. (In the interim, he founded and ran a public affairs consultancy, advising and commenting on Fox News.)
As usual, Republican senators privately advised the White House against the appointment, urging the president to select an intelligence professional instead. To get around Senate opposition, Mr. Trump chose to accord Mr. Grenell only “acting” status, circumventing Senate confirmation.
By now, we’re used to this president naming unqualified loyalists to high positions. But this is not just another disparagement of the separation of powers. Within the executive branch itself, it is a calculated insult to the integrity and professionalism of the U.S. intelligence community, one that threatens to further impair the function of sound intelligence collection and analysis — that is, to inform U.S. policy — and to politicize the relationship between the White House and intelligence agencies.
As an ambassador, Mr. Grenell at least was a consumer of intelligence. That might theoretically afford him a minimal degree of applicable experience. But he has been egregiously incapable of observing the boundary between his diplomatic role as ambassador, on one hand, and political interference in the internal affairs of allies, on the other.
A day after taking office as ambassador, Mr. Grenell admonished German companies to stop doing business with Iran, overstepping the basic boundaries of his diplomatic role. The following month he told Breitbart News that he wanted to empower “conservatives throughout Europe,” impugned the “failed policies of the left,” and characterized Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria, then in a coalition with a far-right political party, as a “rock star.” Last year he directly threatened German companies involved in constructing the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with sanctions. Evidence shows he can’t even do his basic job: An extensively sourced 2019 profile in Der Spiegel indicated that he generally ignores the factual dossiers prepared for him at the embassy.
With this recent record, there is virtually no chance that Mr. Grenell will be able to discern, let alone stay inside, the line between objectively providing intelligence and tendentiously supporting the president’s policies. That, of course, appears to be Mr. Trump’s hope and intention. From Mr. Trump’s standpoint, Mr. Grenell’s key qualification is that he is a shill for the president, a shameless political advocate. For this president, shamelessness and personal loyalty are paramount virtues.
Mr. Grenell’s appointment also makes brazenly obvious what was already quite clear: that the president sees impartial intelligence an impediment to the implementation of his policies unless it caters to his own political biases and often counterfactual contentions.
Among those biases is his sympathy for far-right influences in Europe, which Mr. Grenell publicly and emphatically shares. Neither the president nor his new intelligence chief is likely to focus sufficiently on the rising threat of transnational right-wing extremist groups. The dubious contentions include the president’s view, contrary to U.S. intelligence assessments, that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.