“I believe him.”
It was November 2017, after a meeting with Vladimir Putin in Vietnam, and Donald Trump was telling reporters he was convinced by the Russian president’s denials about interfering in the 2016 election. “He said he didn’t meddle,” Trump said. “And I believe, I really believe, that when he tells me that, he means it.”
U.S. intelligence agencies, of course, had concluded the opposite. Shortly before Trump’s inauguration, the office of the country’s top intelligence official published a report saying that not only had Putin ordered an influence campaign aimed at the 2016 election—he did so in part to help Trump win.
From the start of his presidency, Trump has pummeled away at that finding—sending flurries of tweets, sidelining officials who wouldn’t toe his line—in an effort to cloud and undermine it. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller highlighted the magnitude of Russia’s 2016 efforts, Trump stood beside Putin in Helsinki, Finland, in the summer of 2018, and again cast doubt on Moscow’s culpability. He continued to muddy the waters amid warnings about Russian meddling in new elections in 2018 and 2020, questioning Moscow’s involvement and even doubling down on a theory, itself the product of Russian disinformation, that Ukraine interfered in 2016 to help Hillary Clinton.
With each move by Trump, the U.S. intelligence community has provided a counter-narrative, putting reports, statements, and congressional testimony into the public record that unequivocally lay out Russia’s role. But Trump’s appointment of a new acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, an outspoken loyalist who now heads the same office that published the 2017 report on Russian meddling, raises a question: Will Trump finally seek to muzzle his spies as he pushes to control the narrative in his reelection campaign?
Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, has not yet had the chance to write his legacy in the job. But the circumstances surrounding his appointment have intelligence veterans worried that Trump wants a partisan in the job to do his bidding. It was Trump’s ongoing fixation on the Russia narrative, in fact, that got Grenell’s predecessor removed. Trump reportedly became incensed with Joseph Maguire after an intelligence official said, in a classified briefing to Congress, that Russia is again interfering in the presidential election and again has a preference for Trump.
Joshua Geltzer, who was a senior national-security official in the Obama administration, told me that Grenell’s appointment fits with a purge in the executive branch, in which Trump, emboldened by his impeachment acquittal, is determined to install more loyalists. He noted that the U.S. intelligence community has been saying publicly for three years that Russia’s interference efforts are ongoing. “So it’s nothing new,” he said. “What’s new is, Trump believes that he’s at the point where he can strangle the executive branch to keep it from saying things he doesn’t like.”
What’s especially notable about Maguire’s ouster is what reportedly made Trump so upset: the fact that the briefing in question was attended by Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, whom Trump accuses repeatedly of press leaks. (Schiff has denied this.) According to The Washington Post, Trump “believed that the information would be helpful to Democrats if it were released publicly.” The same motivation played a role in Trump’s dismissal of two key witnesses from the impeachment trial whose testimony about his conduct in withholding aid to Ukraine cut against his narrative: Gordon Sondland, who was U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Alexander Vindman, a military officer assigned to the White House. These people not only said things that Trump didn’t want to hear. They said things that Trump didn’t want the public to hear.
It’s clear that controlling the narrative will be central to Trump’s reelection campaign. The Ukraine scandal centered on his efforts to get its president to announce an investigation into discredited allegations about Joe Biden, then the Democratic front-runner, in hopes of legitimizing the claims about Biden and weakening his candidacy. As my colleague McKay Coppins has reported, Trump’s campaign will rely on a billion-dollar effort to bombard the electorate with not just standard political ads but disinformation. And removing or at least weakening the intelligence community’s resistance by installing a partisan director would potentially help Trump in his efforts to rewrite the facts around Russia’s meddling. The DNI is the principal intelligence adviser to the president and serves as the intelligence community’s main liaison to the commander in chief. In addition to his influence over the information the president receives, though, the DNI can also influence what information is shared and collected elsewhere within the government—and, often, what reaches Congress and the public.
In steps Grenell, who has no intelligence background but has made it clear he will aggressively push Trump’s line. The Wall Street Journal called him “Trump’s favorite ambassador,” reporting that the president is impressed with his combative tone on TV and social media and has called Grenell someone who “gets it.” To be fair, it’s still unclear what kind of DNI Grenell will be or even how long his tenure will last. Under federal guidelines, Grenell can stay in his post only until mid-March, unless Trump nominates a permanent director by then. This would allow his tenure to continue for months as the confirmation process plays out, and as Wired noted, if a “nomination fails or other nominations come and go, Grenell could stay on indefinitely.” Grenell has a history of hawkish views on Russia, though in a 2016 opinion piece for Fox News he minimized Russia’s interference efforts, writing that it has been employing such tactics for decades. One of his first moves as acting DNI was to install Kash Patel, a partisan warrior who played an important role in Republican efforts to push back against the FBI’s Russia probe, as a senior adviser. Patel reportedly has a mandate to “clean house.”
Robert Litt, who served as general counsel to the DNI during the Obama administration, told me that if Trump does find a willing partisan for the director’s job—in Grenell or another candidate—he or she would hold the power to interfere with the intelligence community’s work to combat and monitor Russia’s meddling efforts. “The DNI is responsible for setting priorities for intelligence collection. And if you’re not looking for something, you’re not going to find it,” said Litt, now a lawyer with the firm Morrison and Foerster. “The DNI could deprioritize looking for information and direct intelligence assets away from that.”
Even without such a clear-cut move, he noted, collection and analysis could see a chilling effect. “If people think their careers are going to be at stake if they talk about these things, there’s going to be a natural inclination to shade your findings,” he said. Hypothetically, for instance, “you might say the Russians are looking to interfere in the elections, and you might omit that they’re trying to help the president, even though the evidence says they are.”
The DNI also influences what information reaches Congress and the public. The 2017 report, for example, established a frame of reference on Russia’s 2016 efforts. Intelligence officials’ testimony at hearings, Litt said, “shapes congressional and public understanding of these important issues.” He added: “If nobody’s saying those things, then it’s hard for the narrative to take hold.”
A pliant DNI could also go beyond withholding information to “skewing the story,” Douglas London, a professor at Georgetown who recently retired from a 34-year career in the CIA, told me. “This could be picking facts, suppressing what he doesn’t like and emphasizing what he does like”—and in the process building a narrative that “supports the president’s preferences.”
This sort of political warfare is already under way—and it predates Grenell’s tenure. The Trump administration’s willingness to bend intelligence was on full display last month, after the targeted killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani. Trump as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted that the killing had been justified because of intelligence showing that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack against Americans, a contention that met with skepticism in Congress; later, it emerged that the White House’s own legal justification for the strike made no mention of such a threat.
And the administration’s politicization of intelligence is already factoring into the 2020 elections. On Saturday, Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security adviser, cast doubt on the reported intelligence linking Russian interference and Trump in 2020. Speaking on ABC News, he instead sought to redirect the spotlight to the new Democratic front-runner, Bernie Sanders, noting his infamous honeymoon to the Soviet Union in 1988. Trump had also chosen to highlight this at a rally the previous day: “Wouldn’t [Putin] rather have Bernie?”
Both O’Brien and Trump were responding to new reports about Russia interference—this time saying that Moscow is also looking to boost Sanders in the Democratic primaries. Sanders was quick to confirm that U.S. officials had briefed him on this, and issued a statement condemning Putin. Meanwhile, Trump, rather than undermine the intelligence assessment, as he has done so often, chose a different strategy: to amplify it for his campaign.