Wednesday evening, President Trump tweeted a widely expected announcement. He’s naming Ambassador Richard Grenell, currently the U.S. ambassador to Germany, to serve as Acting Director of National Intelligence.
I am pleased to announce that our highly respected Ambassador to Germany, @RichardGrenell, will become the Acting Director of National Intelligence. Rick has represented our Country exceedingly well and I look forward to working with him. I would like to thank Joe Maguire….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2020
Mainstream media outlets had begun previewing the impending announcement several hours earlier.
The usual suspects are reacting in the usual way.
This is the definition of failing up. He failed miserably in Germany but at least wasn’t a threat to America’s national security. As Acting DNI, he will. Trump’s team of “acting” lackeys just keep getting worse. https://t.co/QOOJBiHduU
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) February 20, 2020
This is such good news. Maybe the deep state Obama cancer will be excised, and not a moment too soon. https://t.co/k1FqqyXSYy
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) February 20, 2020
Ric Grenell is not remotely qualified for this job. He is wildly partisan, vicious to critics and has almost no relevant experience. I often worry about Trump coopting and politicizing the intelligence community. Grenell will make it happen. https://t.co/pkvNmmgaZG
— Tommy Vietor (@TVietor08) February 20, 2020
This is so great.
— Kurt Schlichter (@KurtSchlichter) February 20, 2020
Trump elevates Twitter troll to DNIhttps://t.co/ktPKdtT5i8
— Karen Tumulty (@ktumulty) February 19, 2020
Great pick. As U.S. ambassador to the country with the largest economy in the EU, Grenell has a ton of successful experience coordinating intel and national security policy. https://t.co/g4FeREjGMB
— Sean Davis (@seanmdav) February 19, 2020
Grenell in charge of our intelligence through the campaign is a truly terrifying thought. https://t.co/2yzkgPwYgE
— Ben Rhodes (@brhodes) February 20, 2020
There’s lots more if you search on “richard grenell” at Twitter.
The media will no doubt pound the theme that Grenell is unqualified for the job because he doesn’t have a professional background in intelligence. However, the DNI position is much more about politics, interagency horse-trading, and program management than it is about intelligence operations. Grenell is a very good pick for one of the toughest jobs in Washington, especially at a time when the “deep state,” or permanent bureaucracy, or whatever you want to call it is on active defense.
The intelligence community has been one of the most significant deep state actors in recent years, although it hasn’t been getting the press of the National Security Council, the Justice Department, or the FBI. The IC never does. It’s mostly out of the limelight.
It has tremendous informational power, however. It was the IC that poisoned and distorted the public’s understanding of the “Iraq-WMD” issue, to the point that almost everyone in America believes a false narrative about it that may never be dislodged.
The same can be said of the “Russiagate” narrative. Although many people understand that it’s a false narrative, it has been virtually impossible to reframe the “Russian meddling” proposition in a way that would enable us to speak accurately and sensibly about it, without having to tick off a laundry list of caveats every time.
This informational power of the intelligence community – exercised, in the last 20 years, largely through tailored leaking to the media – is a major reason why it matters who the DNI is, and matters that Ric Grenell will be the next acting one.
Grenell brings three qualities that make him ideal for the job. One is that he is fearless, and willing to break china when necessary. Like his boss, he doesn’t cavil at favoring outcome over process, when process is discretionary. He won’t break the law. But he won’t let protocol break U.S. policy or interests either.
The second quality is Grenell’s alignment with the policy vision of Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. This will be a welcome change at ODNI on policy issues like Iran, China, Russia, NATO, and Eastern Europe. Acting DNI Maguire has presumably not been a thorn in Trump’s side, or an old-school dragger of heels in the manner of Dan Coates. But it’s time for Trump to have a DNI who is not only aligned with Trump’s views but is a leadership presence of catalytic energy.
It remains to be seen what can be done with that quality inside the IC. I don’t expect rapid transformation; I know the community too well.
But it’s really in the interagency arena that Grenell can be especially effective. Populating the National Security Council with intelligence professionals is one obvious aspect of that. Trump needs a DNI who won’t be a rubber stamp for whoever CIA, State, or DOD wants to send. Grenell fits that profile.
We can expect Grenell to be aligned with Trump on another very important issue. We should see it, in fact, as the most important for America’s future: cooperating with William Barr on the investigation of Spygate.
That one’s going to be ugly. I suspect one reason Trump wants to essentially use a high-value asset like Grenell as a burner phone – a temp in an indispensable position, one that will probably be Grenell’s swan song in the Trump administration – is that the IC has been throwing up every conceivable obstacle to that cooperation. There will be a target painted on Grenell’s back before he arrives from Germany. This will be the toughest gig he’s ever played.
But quality number one – fearlessness – will go a long way. Grenell seems to be the kind of guy who doesn’t need to know where all the bodies are buried. He needs to know what the objective is. He’ll be clear on that – and when you’re on offense and know how to generate momentum, deploying leverage and firehoses to deal with buried bodies is a collateral problem, not the main effort.
The third quality brings us full circle. Grenell does have a body of professional expertise. And he’s really good at it, which is why so many people think so well of him. His expertise is in political communication.
That’s what he’s been doing for the last 30 years. If you look at his resume, he’s spent that time, whether in political campaigns or government jobs, getting out in front of narratives – on whatever topic – and making them his. He does it right out in the open too. Leaking from the shadows is not his M.O.
Grenell knows how to preempt the information environment. That’s why people remember what he did and said, and others end up reacting to it. Like Trump, he recognizes the value of speaking and tweeting to his own objectives – not in a constant tail-chase of reaction – as a means of defining terms and moving policy along.
The shadow-leakers of the IC can try to undermine him, and no doubt will. There are no guarantees of how this will all come out. But I expect Grenell to be a quick study. Working in concert with Barr, Pompeo, National Security Adviser O’Brien, and others, he will probably start getting inside the OODA loop of the deep state IC on a consistent basis.
The hostile, shadow-leaking contingent of the IC doesn’t have to be entirely silenced, although we can reasonably hope that eventually it will reach a livable asymptote to that halcyon condition. It has to be neutralized, rear-ended, caught in the headlights. Richard Grenell is a good bet to accomplish that in some key areas – while giving encouragement and pride to the many honorable intelligence professionals who slog away day after day keeping vigil over America’s national security.