WASHINGTON — Richard Grenell’s tenure as the nation’s top intelligence official may be short-lived, but he wasted no time this week starting to shape his team of advisers, ousting his office’s No. 2 official — a longtime intelligence officer — and bringing in an expert on Trump conspiracy theories to help lead the agency, according to officials.
Grenell has also requested the intelligence behind the classified briefing last week before the House Intelligence Committee in which officials told lawmakers that Russia was interfering in November’s presidential election and that President Vladimir Putin of Russia favored President Donald Trump’s reelection. The briefing later prompted Trump’s anger as he complained that Democrats would use it against him.
Joseph Maguire, the former acting director of national intelligence, and his deputy, Andrew Hallman, resigned Friday. Grenell told Hallman, popular in the office’s Liberty Crossing headquarters, that his service was no longer needed, according to two officials. Hallman, who has worked in the office or at the CIA for three decades, expressed confidence in his colleagues in a statement but also referred to the “uncertainties that come with change.”
The ouster of Hallman and exit of Maguire, who also oversaw the National Counterterrorism Center, allowed Grenell to install his own leadership team.
One of his first hires was Kashyap Patel, a senior National Security Council staff member and former key aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Patel will have a mandate to “clean house,” CBS News reported, citing a person close to the matter.
Patel was best known as the lead author of a politically charged memo two years ago that accused FBI and Justice Department leaders of abusing their surveillance powers to spy on a former Trump campaign adviser. The memo was widely criticized as misleading, although an inspector general later found other problems with aspects of the surveillance.
Working with Nunes, Patel began what they called Objective Medusa to examine the FBI’s investigation into whether anyone associated with the Trump campaign conspired with Russia’s election interference in 2016.
“I hired him to bust doors down,” Nunes told author Lee Smith for his book “The Plot Against the President,” which chronicles Patel’s investigations on behalf of the Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee. Patel was interviewed extensively in the book, which claims without proof that journalists, diplomats, law enforcement and intelligence officials engaged in a vast plot to undermine Trump’s campaign and then bring him down as president.
As acting director of national intelligence, Grenell has access to any secrets he may want to review. And he has requested access to information from the CIA and other intelligence agencies, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The revelations about last week’s briefing reignited fears about Russia’s continuing efforts to interfere in the U.S. election, including in the Democratic primary races.
During the briefing, which was supposed to focus on coordination among government agencies to fight election interference, not the acts themselves, Republicans challenged the intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Russians continue to favor Trump. Some officials said that the briefing was not meant to be controversial and that intelligence officials intended to simply reiterate what they have been telling Congress for months.
Intelligence officials have already documented instances of the Kremlin trying to influence U.S. politics, namely attempts by Russian military intelligence officers to hack into the Ukrainian energy company that once employed the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. Officials want to know whether the breach was an effort to help Trump, whose efforts to persuade Ukraine to announce investigations into Biden helped prompt his impeachment.
And during the congressional impeachment hearings, Fiona Hill, a former senior White House official who worked on Russia issues, warned about Moscow’s continued efforts to spread disinformation.
Trump himself wrote in a January letter accompanying the administration’s national counterintelligence strategy that “Russia remains a significant intelligence threat to United States interests — employing aggressive acts to instigate and exacerbate tensions and instability in the United States, including interfering with the security of our elections.”
Intelligence officials were scheduled to brief the full House and Senate on election security March 10, arrangements that were made weeks ago, accounting to congressional aides.
How long Grenell will be able to stay as the acting director is an open question. For him to remain past March 11 — a limit imposed by federal law — Trump must formally nominate someone else for the director of national intelligence post.
Trump told reporters late Thursday that he was considering Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the intelligence committee, but Collins took himself out of the running Friday morning.
Collins, who helped lead the president’s impeachment defense, had received no advance notice that he was under consideration for the top intelligence post. He saw no reason to entertain a job he did not want, especially as he wages a special-election battle for a Senate seat in his home state of Georgia.
“I know the problems in our intelligence community, but this is not a job that interests me at this time,” Collins said on Fox Business. “It’s not one that I would accept because I’m running a Senate race.”
People close to Collins have speculated that the president might have been trying to entice Collins out of that election to tamp down a messy intraparty fight that could cost Republicans control of the seat. Party leaders have converged around Sen. Kelly Loeffler since Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia appointed her to fill the state’s vacant Senate seat late last year and have made no secret of their disdain for Collins’ refusal to exit the race.
A nomination to a Cabinet-level position would have required Collins to drop out of the race. But given his lack of intelligence experience and political track record, there was little likelihood the Senate would have confirmed him to the post.
With Collins off the table, Trump will need another potential nominee. The White House is considering Pete Hoekstra, the former Republican congressman who is now the U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, according to three officials.
Whether the Senate would be willing to formally consider Hoekstra is unclear. But if Trump were to send a nomination to the Senate it would, under federal law, allow Grenell to serve for at least another six months.