WASHINGTON (CN) – The ascendancy of his administration’s most staunch defenders continues as President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced the latest shakeup to leadership atop the U.S. intelligence community.
In a tweet, Trump announced that U.S. ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell will replace acting director Joseph Maguire as head of the Director of National Intelligence.
The body comprises all of the nation’s intelligence agencies, including the National Security Council which only weeks ago saw key impeachment witness Lt. Colonel Alex Vindman ousted on the heels of the president’s acquittal by the Senate on two counts, including abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Grenell replaces Maguire, who was expected to leave the position by March 12. Grenell represents the third change of the acting director role at DNI since Trump was elected. Dan Coats departed the office in July 28 after a two-year tenure frequently marked by public and personal clashes over Trump’s lambasting of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, the intelligence community overall and the administration’s posture towards North Korea.
An acting director of a federal agency like the DNI must be confirmed by the Senate. But because Grenell was already confirmed when he became ambassador, he does not need to face the scrutiny of a confirmation hearing to serve in the intelligence role.
Grenell would only run the gamut of confirmation if Trump opts to install him permanently.
With the ambassador in the role, this places one of Trump’s most vocal defenders in a position of significance, albeit temporarily.
Grenell often employs a style similar to President Trump’s bombast on burden-sharing at NATO by European allies.
“You want a U.S. that doesn’t pressure you to pay your NATO obligation, looks the other way when you buy too much Russian gas, doesn’t demand you take back your Nazi prison guard living in NYC, accepts your higher car tariffs and still sends 50,000 troops to your country,” Grenell tweeted Monday in response to a post from a German politician who chided the U.S. official for his aggressive tone.
The ambassador has also been highly critical of opponents to the administration’s posture towards Iran and its decision to withdraw from the 2015 joint nuclear agreement. Grenell also vehemently defended the targeted killing of Iran’s second in command Major General Qasem Soleimani.
Grenell has been less inclined to express public support for telecommunications giant Huawei, a position that puts him out of step with Trump – this week, at least.
Members inside the administration, including an official at the State Department’s cyber, international communications and information department expressed concern Wednesday that trade with Huawei poses a national security threat due to its potential for surveillance capabilities embedded into its devices.
Just a day earlier, when speaking to reporters, President Trump backed away from the idea of placing further restrictions on sales with the Chinese firm. That same morning on Twitter, the president said he wanted China to feel freer to do business with the U.S.
“As an example, I want China to buy our jet engines, the best in the world,” Trump wrote.
As to Grenell, he is an openly gay former Fox News commentator and previously served as U.S. spokesman to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush. He also has a long history of pursuing LGBT rights. As acting director of the DNI, Grenell would be the first openly gay member of Trump’s cabinet.
Most recently, on Tuesday, Grenell launched the beginning of a Trump administration program aimed at decriminalizing homosexuality on the international scale. It is expected to work in conjunction with the U.N., U.S. embassies and members of the E.U.
The program was reportedly triggered by the execution of a young gay man in Iran last year. Grenell wrote a highly critical op-ed for the German newspaper Bild slamming Iran following the hanging.
At least one Democrat that would have oversight of Grenell, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was critical of the appointment since Grenell lacks direct intelligence experience. Warner would oversee Grenell’s confirmation hearing if he was permanently vaulted to the role.
“The intelligence community deserves stability and an experienced individual to lead them in a time of massive national and global security challenges," Warner said. "Now more than ever our country needs a Senate-confirmed intelligence director who will provide the best intelligence and analysis, regardless of whether or not it's expedient for the President who has appointed him."
Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican, championed the pick, saying on Twitter that 50 years ago a gay man or woman “couldn’t work in the intelligence community.”
GOP Leader and Trump stalwart Kevin McCarthy also celebrated the pick, lauding Grenell’s “proven track record.”
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