In his final hours as the top US intelligence official, Richard Grenell took one last swipe at congressional Democrats and declassified more documents tied to the origins of the Russia investigation. His actions were emblematic of a short but consequential and controversial tenure as the acting director of national intelligence.
Grenell attacked the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee in a letter on Monday, accusing Virginia Sen. Mark Warner of “cherry picking certain documents for release” for political reasons. He also declassified additional documents related to the Russia investigation before walking out the door, according to Fox News, documents that his now-former boss, President Donald Trump, has seized on.
The pair of actions were the final notes of Grenell’s combative record since being appointed acting DNI in February. Grenell, the US Ambassador to Germany, was criticized by Democrats and career intelligence officials as the least-experienced and most overtly political official to serve as the DNI, and they say that their worst fears have been realized: that the fierce political loyalist weaponized the US intelligence apparatus to boost Trump’s reelection bid.
In his three months leading the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Grenell has overseen two controversial firings of top career officials, a re-structuring of several parts of ODNI, a deeply acrimonious relationship with overseers in Congress and the declassification of documents from the Obama administration that fueled the “Obamagate” conspiracy theory amplified by Trump and his allies.
Grenell has insisted, to his allies and critics alike, that he has acted only in the interest of transparency.
“We believe transparency builds public confidence,” Grenell said last week after declassifying an e-mail that former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice wrote detailing concerns about the relationship with Russia of her incoming successor, Michael Flynn.
The move came days after Grenell sent over to the Department of Justice a list of Obama officials – including Vice President Joe Biden – who had requested the “unmasking” of an unknown American citizen who had spoken repeatedly to Russia’s ambassador to Washington in the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. The American turned out to be Flynn.
For Democrats in Congress, the twin declassifications cemented their belief that Grenell was less concerned about leading the intelligence community than helping the President. It was “without precedent,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in a statement.
“It was a transparent political act—in an election year and during a pandemic, no less—in which you used the authorities of your position to insinuate wrongdoing by officials who acted appropriately,” he said.
Praise from Trump
Meanwhile, Grenell’s actions have earned him repeated praise from the President who recently told Republican lawmakers that before Grenell was installed, “we had an empty seat.”
“I think you’ll go down as the all-time great acting ever, at any position,” Trump gushed at Grenell’s last cabinet meeting before his departure. “So thank you very much, Ric.”
Trump’s campaign has jumped on the declassifications as part of an attack on Biden, Trump’s presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential opponent, who was among the officials listed in the documents Grenell declassified.
“Americans have a right to know the depth of Biden’s involvement in the setup of Gen. Flynn to further the Russia collusion hoax,” Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said in a statement after the unmasking documents were released.
Grenell indicated Friday that more information related to Flynn’s calls with Russian officials were in the process of being declassified and said he believed the transcripts should be released in their entirety.
However, the decision regarding what material, if any, is ultimately released to the public will fall to his successor, newly-sworn-in DNI John Ratcliffe, according to a source familiar with the matter.
ODNI declined to comment on the Fox News report that Grenell had declassified more Russia documents.
Grenell is leaving the DNI post at the same time he is wrapping up as ambassador to Germany, a job he’s held since April 2018 and stayed in while serving in Washington at ODNI. Grenell traveled back to Berlin in the past week at the behest of National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien to start discussions about easing trade and travel restrictions, sources said.
After the short trip, Grenell returned to Washington and was on hand Tuesday for the swearing in of Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican who aggressively defended the President during impeachment hearings as a member of the House Intelligence Committee late last year.
Ratcliffe was confirmed by the Senate last week in a party-line vote with the greatest number of ‘no’ votes, 44, since the DNI position was created.
Trump had previously named Ratcliffe to be the permanent DNI last August but the congressman withdrew from consideration after it became clear he had repeatedly embellished his resume.
But after Ratcliffe was named again in February – and officially nominated - Democrats, as well as numerous Republicans, offered little resistance to Ratcliffe’s confirmation process, believing he was at least better suited to the role than Grenell.
On Monday, Grenell tweeted a stream of thanks and barbs as a variety of people commented on his departure as both Acting DNI and ambassador. “Thank you, Senator,” he responded to Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn who had tweeted praise for “[helping] America learn of the underpinnings of the deep state.”
Trump’s ‘deep-state’ warrior
Trump has repeatedly blasted an alleged “Deep State” in the intelligence community, repeatedly accusing career officials of seeking to undermine his administration from the inside despite no evidence to back up his claims.
Very quickly, Grenell was cast as someone who sought to uncover and oust those officials who appeared to be disloyal to the President.
The departures of several top officials during his short tenure as acting DNI only bolstered that reputation.
In early April, Grenell oversaw the firing of inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, the independent watchdog who told Congress about the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.
Warner and other Democrats blasted the firing of Atkinson’s dismissal, calling it the part of the “purging” of the intelligence community. The President later admitted Atkinson was fired because of how he handled the whistleblower complaint.
Just weeks before Atkinson’s ouster, the ODNI’s highly-regarded acting head of counterterrorism, Russ Travers, was unexpectedly and suddenly removed, with little explanation, along with his deputy.
In response, former heads of ODNI’s National Counterterrorism Center, which Travers had led, wrote in the Washington Post that hat the intelligence community was facing an unprecedented attack “from an insidious enemy: domestic politics.”
“We cannot let the covid-19 pandemic be a cover for the deeply destructive path being pursued by the Trump administration,” wrote the eight authors, which included officials who served Obama and President George W. Bush, as well as the man Grenell replaced, Joseph Maguire.
Much of the re-organization at ODNI that Grenell undertook that angered congressional Democrats had less to do with the actual structural changes than his refusal to consult with them.
Changes to NCTC and the creation of a “Cyber Executive,” among other changes, were received without much controversy. Democrats even praised Grenell’s naming of career officer Neil Wiley for ODNI’s number two position and counterintelligence official Bill Evanina to lead election security briefings for political candidates.
Fights with the Hill
Some of Grenell’s moves prompted a bipartisan response Capitol Hill. Then-Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, who has since stepped down amid an FBI probe into his stock transactions, sent a joint letter with Warner urging Grenell to avoid making significant changes an acting capacity without consulting the Intelligence Committees.
Grenell did little to heed their warnings, feuding publicly and privately with Congress, often accusing Democrats of politicizing the intelligence community despite rarely communicating directly with those he criticized in writing.
His only verbal interaction with Schiff was brief and took place in February at a security conference in Germany before he was named acting DNI, according to a committee aide.
The two have not spoken since then as an initial call was requested and then canceled by ODNI, the committee aide said. Grenell and Warner haven’t spoken since Grenell was named acting director either, which Grenell blamed on the senator in his letter Monday.
Behind the scenes, however, Grenell has not hesitated to call committee staffers directly to voice objections to oversight requests.
At one point, Grenell dialed up an aide to Warner on the Senate Intelligence Committee to complain when the panel asked whether officials at ODNI were being questioned about their political affiliations, demanding to know where the committee heard such a rumor, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Grenell did not respond to CNN’s request for comment regarding the interaction.
Publicly, Grenell has fought with Democrats both through letters and his active Twitter account.
The latest example came in the form of Monday’s letter to Warner in which he criticized the Virginia Democrat for requesting the underlying intelligence reports to the unmasking requests Grenell had declassified.
“I would appreciate it if you would explain your philosophy on transparency as it appears to be based solely on political advantage,” Grenell wrote.
What’s next for Grenell?
Grenell’s aggressive moves at ODNI – and in Berlin – have raised questions about what he now plans to do after leaving his two positions. Multiple sources say he intends to join the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, an independent panel within the White House.
He has told people close to him and the administration that he expects to do some work for Trump’s reelection campaign in some capacity, but a campaign official said there “are no discussions about Grenell joining the campaign.” Sources had previously told CNN that a campaign role that would allow him to publicly defend Trump as he did during his time as a Fox News personality before taking the job of ambassador to Germany.
Now, Grenell may be attempting to position himself as a leading candidate to replace Trump’s current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should he leave the administration if Trump wins in 2020, according to two sources familiar with this thinking.
Grenell has also previously expressed interest in the job of national security adviser and was among those on Trump’s short list for the job before he ultimately hired Robert O’Brien for the role last September.
The role of national security adviser does not require Senate confirmation and, sources say, would likely be a more logical landing spot for Grenell during Trump’s second term.
CNN’s Kylie Atwood contributed reporting