There is always drama in President Donald Trump’s Washington, and the script is often the same.
Previous episodes at the Pentagon, the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security have featured a Cabinet secretary resignation, withdrawn nominees and sidelined officials, and a scramble to find someone to temporarily lead a vital piece of the US government.
This week it was the intelligence community.
The President’s effort to place a political loyalist as the nation’s director of national intelligence to “rein in” the community caused turmoil at the top of the national security apparatus.
Trump’s July 28 tweet that Dan Coats would be out as director of national intelligence on August 15 set a two-week timer. The man Trump had wanted for the job, Rep. John Ratcliffe – a Texas Republican who had auditioned on national television when he dressed down special counsel Robert Mueller at congressional hearings – excelled at political loyalty, the most important attribute for Trump.
But he turned out to have a resume too thin for Republicans in the Senate. Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration for the post.
Trump then leapfrogged Sue Gordon, a career spy who had been Coats’ deputy, to instill a retired Navy admiral and former SEAL commander, Joseph Maguire, as the acting director of national intelligence. Maguire had been serving as director of the National Counterterrorism Center.
All these moves were announced on Trump’s Twitter feed, including Gordon’s resignation.
“I offer this letter as an act of respect & patriotism, not preference. You should have your team,” she wrote to Trump in her resignation letter.
She was not viewed within the administration as the type of loyalist Trump wanted in the intelligence role, according to CNN’s reporting. Trump had expressed frustration with Coats and said recently that he wanted someone more loyal to run the US spy agencies.
“We need somebody strong that can rein it in. Because, as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They have run amok,” he said July 30.
Critics have said the nation’s top spy should be able to give intelligence assessments unvarnished by what the President wants to hear.
“President Trump has repeatedly demonstrated that he is seemingly incapable of hearing facts that contradict his own views,” said Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee. “The mission of the intelligence community is to speak truth to power; yet in pushing out two dedicated public servants in as many weeks, once again the President has shown that he has no problem prioritizing his political ego even if it comes at the expense of our national security.”
As Trump searched for more loyal subordinates and complained of an intelligence community out of his control, a foreign service officer who had resigned in protest of the President said in a blistering rebuke of his fellow government workers that they are feckless and complacent.
“Among my colleagues at the State Department, I have met neither the unsung hero nor the cunning villain of Deep State lore,” he wrote, saying the bureaucracy has actually become “the Complacent State.”
Trump’s Cabinet shakeups
Previous shakeups have occurred for a variety of reasons. The President didn’t think officials at DHS were tough enough on immigration. He never forgave Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. His first defense secretary, James Mattis, resigned with a pointed letter about foreign policy, after Trump said he would pull US troops from Syria.
So it is a little surprising that Coats, a former senator and ambassador who defended spy agencies and several times publicly broke from Trump, lasted as long as he did. But his relationship with the intelligence community was poisoned from the start.
While Trump has relied on US intelligence when it has served his purpose, he has dismissed it when it did not. He was angered by Coats particularly over the suspicion in the intelligence community that despite the President’s high-profile efforts, North Korea will not ultimately abandon its nuclear ambitions.
Trump still does not seem to believe Russia interfered in the 2016 election in order to help him, even though that is the unanimous conclusion of the US agencies.
Defending himself against the idea that his campaign colluded with Russians in that effort has been the defining element of Trump’s presidency so far, and he has long pushed the conspiracy theory that the US government was spying on his campaign.
Trump’s attorney general, William Barr – who gave a news conference shortly before releasing the Muller report in which he painted a quite different picture than what it said, which muted the effect of its contents – is now conducting a Department of Justice inquiry into the Russia investigation and the intelligence community.
While Mueller’s report to the Justice Department did not find that the campaign had conspired with Russians, it did outline multiple possible instances of obstruction of justice by Trump.
Democrats in the House said this week that their follow-up to Mueller’s report amounts to an impeachment inquiry.
“This IS formal impeachment proceedings,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler said Thursday night on CNN. “We are investigating all the evidence and we will at the conclusion of this, hopefully by the end of the year vote to – vote articles of impeachment to the House floor or we won’t. That’s a decision we’ll have to make.”
That impeachment effort, now in the open, is likely to have some effect on everything that happens between now and Election Day – to include Trump’s search for a permanent intelligence chief and a permanent DHS secretary.