Intelligence officials briefed House lawmakers last week that Russian actors were interfering in the 2020 elections, once more to the benefit of Donald Trump. The contents of the briefing, which was first reported by The New York Times, sparked a series of dramatic events that have further eroded relations between Hill Democrats and the White House, and prompted the president—it appears—to appoint a top political ally to oversee the nation’s national security apparatus.
The meeting, which took place on Feb. 13, was conducted for the House Intelligence Committee by an aide to the outgoing acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. According to a legislator who was present, the aide, Shelby Pierson, Maguire’s election security chief, described a Russian elections-intrusion effort that never stopped from 2016.
“It continues with the same target, and the same purpose, and it’s clear that they [the Russians] favor one candidate over the other,” is how the lawmaker described it.
“The Republicans [on the committee] went nuts,” over Pierson’s presentation, the member told The Daily Beast. A second source familiar with the briefing said that Republicans didn’t understand why the Kremlin would try to boost Trump, since he had been so tough on Russia, in their view. Reps. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), Will Hurd (R-TX) and Chris Stewart (R-UT)—who, according to The Times, has been a Trump favorite to replace Maguire—were particularly vocal in their skepticism, the member said. A spokesperson for Wenstrup said the congressman does not comment on classified or closed-door matters before the Intelligence Committee. Spokespersons for Stewart and Hurd did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Word of the meeting trickled back to the White House. And in the wake of the briefing, Trump forced out Maguire, whose tenure was set to expire next month. Other major changes are soon to follow. According to several sources, including one former high-ranking intelligence official, ODNI Principal Executive Andrew Hallman is departing, as is ODNI General Counsel Jason Klitenic. Klitenic's last day is March 2, a DNI spokesperson said. Hallman is returning to the CIA, sources said. The Times first reported on Hallman’s pending departure.
“Hallman, who is a legend and one of the most honest and truthful and experienced and acknowledged persons in the entire intelligence community system,” said the official, who is in a position to know the coordinating of the effort throughout the intelligence community. “Andrew Hallman is a national treasure.”
In addition, Kash Patel, the former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes who helmed efforts to push back against the FBI's Trump-Russia investigation, has just started working in the ODNI, a former intelligence official told The Daily Beast.
On Tuesday, the president announced that he was appointing Richard Grenell, a pugnacious political ally and current ambassador to Germany, as his acting head of ODNI.
The news of Grenell’s forthcoming appointment had been circulated inside the walls of the White House for several days before the official announcement. Grenell was alerted to Trump’s final decision earlier in the week. Still, the announcement came as a surprise to current and former ODNI officials who said they were concerned about Grenell taking over the helm as acting director given his lack of experience in intelligence.
One former senior intelligence official said Trump’s decision to tap Grenell was “disrespectful to the intelligence community.”
“It’s an essential role. And it calls for someone who can gather unbiased intelligence,” the former official said. “The ambassador was basically shut out of every meeting he had in Germany. He wasn’t respected by anyone. Perhaps he doesn’t understand the role… the importance of establishing intelligence relationships. It requires the person to gather true, unbiased facts of how foreign leaders think.”
A senior intelligence official told The Daily Beast that they expected Grenell to play a small role in day-to-day office decisions and to liaise directly with the White House on policy questions. But in Democratic circles, his appointment—coming on the heels of the contentious Feb. 13 briefing—sent immediate shockwaves along with fears of a rerun of the Russian interference efforts that muddied the 2016 elections.
“Isn’t that absolutely incredible? Predictable but incredible,” former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said in a phone interview that had been scheduled to discuss the impending Nevada Democratic caucus. “They are doing it again and I don't know if we have the tools to stop it.”
On Capitol Hill, there were fears that the White House was now moving to cut off Democratic lawmakers from full briefings on Russian electoral meddling efforts—a fear that the former high-ranking intelligence official said was entirely legitimate.
“The president said he didn’t want any more briefings like this,” the former official said. “This is four years of this. We took an oath of office, so help me God. That oath did not include, ‘It is OK to lie to the president to make him feel better.’”
Rep. Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, expressed concern that Pierson and others within and beyond the intelligence community are in jeopardy for upsetting the president in the course of attempting to do their jobs. Since his acquittal in the impeachment trial, Trump has forced out officials whom he perceived as his enemies, including Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and Undersecretary of Defense John Rood.
“If you don’t agree with the king, you’re gone,” Quigley told The Daily Beast. “That has a chilling effect on people being willing to tell the truth, and that makes us less safe.”
National security officials have long cautioned that Russia would likely interfere again in the U.S. elections. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis confirmed that Moscow had interfered in the 2018 midterms. Former Trump officials acknowledge the threat by Russia but also warned against threats from other countries.
“Because of the way our society functions—the fact that we have a free press and free speech—unfortunately our elections are susceptible to interference,” said Tim Morrison, a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute and the former senior official at the national security council. “And since we’re not going to change the way we operate our elections there will always be that concern. But I’d encourage people to also look at the threats posed by China. They’re interfering in congressional districts. Russia isn’t the only malign actor.”