After 9/11, reformers created the position of director of National Intelligence to improve coordination between America’s sprawling intelligence bureaucracies, and prevent the kinds of oversights that allowed U.S. spies to miss an imminent terror attack.
It’s fair to say they weren’t thinking that the person who held the job should also be coordinating the embassy in Berlin and American efforts to help keep the peace between Serbia and Kosovo — while simultaneously aiding a sitting president’s efforts to squeeze foreign governments to investigate his rivals. But, like the product of some late-night infomercial, Ambassador Richard Grenell now seems poised to do all that and more for the Trump White House.
Grenell’s tenure as ambassador to Germany has been rocky, at least from Berlin’s perspective. He has palled around with far-right groups, spoken openly of a desire to change Angela Merkel’s government, and made statements about U.S. views that sounded like direct orders to sensitive German ears. Last spring, leaders of two German political parties called him a “brat” and a “failure” and urged his ouster. Even in the annals of awkward things done by Trump appointees overseas, this was unprecedented. But if anything, those controversies have only helped Grenell’s reputation in the eyes of President Trump.
He popped up in all kinds of places you wouldn’t expect for someone in his position. At the White House for dinner with Trump and the parents of Otto Warmbier, the young American fatally injured while held captive by North Korea. In Kiev, meeting with gas-company officials — and friends of Rudy Giuliani. In the U.K., where he gave an interview to Breitbart London saying he wanted to “empower other conservatives throughout Europe,” a comment that prompted a German Social Democrat to call him a “far-right colonial officer.” In Belgrade, as the U.S. special envoy to Serbia and Kosovo, a gig he added to his portfolio last fall, which one outside observer called “confusing on many levels.” And his name appeared on short lists for National Security adviser and — when it was thought Mike Pompeo might run for Senate in Kansas — secretary of State.
He also made appearances in the scheming of Rudy Giuliani and his allies, according to now-indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas. Parnas told the Daily Beast that he was told to ask Grenell for advance notice if the Department of Justice were to move to extradite an indicted Ukrainian oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, from whom Giuliani hoped to get compromising information. Parnas also claims Grenell said he would comply. It would, to put it mildly, not be normal or legal for an ambassador to tip off a private citizen to a law-enforcement move. It would also be odd, because Firtash was not in Germany, and so one wouldn’t have expected the U.S. ambassador there to know anything about criminal procedures involving him.
Media coverage so far has focused on the concerns of intelligence professionals, allied countries, and Democrats that Grenell lacks intelligence qualifications. But that line of critique misses the point. One might argue that Grenell has been serving, unrecognized, as Trump’s high commissioner to Europe, and this Cabinet-level appointment gives him more authority in that role. But it also places an absolute loyalist in a position to, from Trump’s perspective, manage the intelligence community so that it cannot do him harm.
The president has made it clear, again and again, that he seeks to remake the national security infrastructure so that it does his bidding and promotes his ends. He does not recognize the idea — sacred to national security professionals — of a higher national interest to which even a president must subordinate her or himself. That has been clear in every aspect of how he and his allies defended his plan to block military aid to Ukraine until the Kiev government produced dirt on a Democratic rival. It was clear in the subsequent firing of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from his White House job, and in Trump’s call for the Pentagon to investigate Vindman for wrongdoing. And it’s clear in the events that led to Grenell’s appointment: The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Joseph Maguire, a previous favorite for the job, was dropped by Trump because of his perceived personal disloyalty. It has been reported that Grenell will hold the job only in an acting role because he is too controversial to be confirmed.
But in fact, the Senate has already given its advice and consent to this future for our security bureaucracy, by voting to acquit Trump of charges stemming from his misuse of U.S. power in Ukraine.
Apparently the many Republican senators who created the director of National Intelligence position in order to have a senior, impartial leader enabling U.S. intelligence agencies to speak with one, non-politicized voice, also think it is fine to have a president who openly and repeatedly turns the tools of intelligence, law enforcement, and national security to his personal ends.