But the president was scheming to flank them. First, he refused to allow the well-liked deputy director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to become the acting director, deeming her too independent. He instead appointed Joseph Maguire, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting director. But Maguire proved too honest for Trump’s tastes too, after he allowed lawmakers to be briefed on Russian interference in the 2020 election.
In February, Maguire in turn was nudged out, and Trump replaced him with Ric Grenell, an irascible former John Bolton protégé who had improbably become the ambassador to Germany. Grenell’s hire induced howls in Washington, where it’s hard to find anyone—including newly arrived interns—who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a Grenell snit fit.
The bad news was that Grenell was a Trump loyalist and bomb-thrower with no experience in intelligence. His appointment was transparently intended to exert some White House control over an intelligence community Trump didn’t trust. It also made a mockery of the acting authority, because Grenell wasn’t in the intelligence community and had no truly relevant experience.
Read: Dan Coats spoke truth to Trump. Now he’s out.
The good news was that Grenell was only the acting director, and his term as director was limited by law: He’d have to leave in mid-March unless a new director had been nominated but not yet confirmed. In late February, when Trump announced plans to nominate Ratcliffe once more, it was interpreted by some as a feint: Trump didn’t really think Ratcliffe would fare better his second time around, but nominating him would allow Grenell to stay in place and continue doing Trump’s bidding. Thus the pernicious genius of Trump’s plan: Senators would either have to hold their noses and confirm Ratcliffe, or hold their noses and let Grenell stick around.
“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” a Democratic aide told NBC News at the time. “It’s a terrible dilemma.”
Well, sort of. The Senate is in a terrible dilemma only because it has allowed Trump to maneuver it into one. If it wanted to rein in Trump’s abuse of the appointment of acting officials, it could do so: Place an embargo on other picks. Pass new legislation. Cut funding. But the Senate has no stomach for that sort of hardball. Republicans have opted to fall in line behind the president—even Collins, a moderate who likes to wring her hands over his trespasses—and Democrats are powerless to stop them. It’s similar to the way Congress has largely abdicated its power of declaring war to the White House; coincidentally, the Senate on Thursday failed to override Trump’s veto of a resolution barring him from attacking Iran without congressional say-so.
Having allowed itself to be forced into the dilemma, the Senate is slouching toward confirming Ratcliffe. During committee hearings, Ratcliffe mouthed all the usual pieties about shooting straight and speaking hard truths and remaining independent. Nominees stretch the truth in confirmation hearings all the time, but these promises wouldn’t fool anyone who’s ever observed Ratcliffe in a House Intelligence Committee hearing. Except, apparently, a U.S. senator.