The Trump administration is taking inventory of many of America’s top spies, The Daily Beast has learned. The White House recently asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for a list of all its employees at the federal government’s top pay scale who have worked there for 90 days or more, according to two sources familiar with the request.
The request appears to be part of the White House’s search for a temporary director of national intelligence—a prospect that raises concerns in some quarters about political influence over the intelligence community.
The request, which specifically asks for people in ODNI at the GS-15 level (the pay grade for most top government employees, including supervisors) or higher, comes as ODNI’s leadership faces turmoil. Earlier this week, President Trump tweeted that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will step down on Aug. 15, and that he plans to nominate Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe for the post. But Ratcliffe faces a contentious confirmation process that’s all but certain to stretch past the 15th, and the White House needs someone to take the DNI role in the meantime.
According to federal law, ODNI’s Senate-confirmed second-in-command—the principal deputy director of national intelligence, currently Sue Gordon—steps in if the DNI departs. Gordon, who has spent decades in the intelligence community, is revered there and on Capitol Hill. But as a career intelligence official, she isn’t viewed as Team MAGA. And the White House is reportedly eyeing ways to put someone they trust in the top role after Coats departs. (The New York Times reported Friday afternoon that the White House was planning to block Gordon’s elevation.)
That may not be as easy as it sounds. As Bobby Chesney of the University of Texas School of Law detailed at Lawfare, the law indicates that if both the DNI post and the post Gordon currently holds are vacant, then the president could choose from a fairly wide pool of people to take Gordon’s post and, therefore, become acting DNI. That includes any Senate-confirmed officials in the Executive Branch, and any senior employee who’s been at ODNI for 90 days or more—in other words, anyone on the list the White House just requested from ODNI.
It’s unclear why the White House asked ODNI for that list, but a search to replace Gordon appears to be the most likely explanation. A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But while questions swirl about her future, Gordon hasn’t stepped down.
This disquiet is the latest episode of the president’s long-simmering feud with the intelligence community. During Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, he often fumed on Twitter about the “deep state.” And he even singled out his own officials. On Jan. 29, Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel told Congress in an open hearing that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal and that North Korea was still running its nuclear program—two statements that contradicted the president’s rhetoric on those countries. The morning after the hearing, the White House abruptly canceled the president’s daily intelligence briefing with Haspel and Coats, a move that raised eyebrows.
The hearing incensed the president, and he took to Twitter to lambaste them.
“Perhaps intelligence should go back to school!” he wrote.