Commentary: Intel hire shows Trump values loyalty over resume

Trump has appointed an ambassador with no relevant background as acting intelligence director.

By Daniel W. Drezner / Special to The Washington Post

In the weeks since the Senate voted not to remove President Trump from office, it is safe to say that he has been feeling less constrained about how he runs the executive branch. Two days after the Senate vote, Trump dispatched Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the National Security Council and Gordon Sondland from his ambassadorship to the European Union. On Wednesday, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood — who made news during the impeachment inquiry because he had certified that Ukraine had made progress on anti-corruption — also left, making it clear that it was at Trump’s request.

There was a small congressional kerfuffle when Vindman was forced back to the Pentagon, but national security adviser Robert O’Brien, he of the ever-shrinking NSC staff, defended it during an Atlantic Council event by saying: “We’re not a country where a bunch of lieutenant colonels can get together and decide what the policy is of the United States. We are not a banana republic.”

The last six words in O’Brien’s quote have not aged well over the past eight days. In banana republics, the word “purge” often appears in headlines about staffing reshuffles. In banana republics, convicted felons get released by presidents if they have political connections. Also in banana republics, presidents tend to make executive appointments based solely on loyalty as opposed to other criteria like, you know, competence and relevant experience.

Which brings us to Wednesday:

“I am pleased to announce that our highly respected Ambassador to Germany, @RichardGrenell, will become the Acting Director of National Intelligence. Rick has represented our Country exceedingly well and I look forward to working with him,” Trump tweeted.

This might be Trump’s most unqualified selection of a major Cabinet position to date. Grenell’s government experience is confined to serving as a spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration and serving as ambassador to Germany for a little less than two years. The best thing one can say about Grenell’s first tour in government is that he was less obnoxious than John Bolton. The best thing one can say about Grenell’s second tour is that he managed to avoid being directly implicated in the effort to extort Ukraine.

The worst thing one can say about Grenell’s time as ambassador is that he is bad at his job. According to a damning Der Spiegel profile from January 2019, he had managed to marginalize himself from the German government: “In Berlin, he has largely become isolated. The powerful avoid him. Doors have been shut.” I may be just a small-town political scientist, but I reckon that an ambassador to a treaty ally is doing a poor job if no one in that country’s government will listen to what he is saying.

Needless to say, Grenell has never spent a day as an intelligence officer or analyst in any capacity, nor does he appear to have the management experience that one would want from someone tasked to oversee 17 separate intelligence agencies. On the other hand, he has reached “gold” status in the “Trump Card” hotel loyalty program.

The most damning thing one can say about this appointment is that I am more qualified to be the director of national intelligence than Grenell, and it would be insane to appoint me to that position. It is therefore unsurprising that, according to the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Michael Schmidt, Grenell would probably not be confirmed by the Senate for this position. (The Times article has since been updated.)

“Since the acquittal of Mr. Trump in the Senate impeachment trial, the White House has been pushing to remove officials seen as disloyal or holding views contrary to the White House, looking for replacements who are more likely to follow the president’s wishes. While it has never been clear how Mr. Trump viewed Mr. Maguire, there is little doubt that the president would like a partisan fighter in the post before any public testimony before Congress. …

“Mr. Grenell is also a polarizing figure and his confirmation by the Senate is not assured, one reason the president intends to name him acting director, rather than formally nominating him for the job. A number of Republican senators have privately pushed the administration to nominate a national security professional or politician who is seen as a less divisive figure… .

“After Mr. Ratcliffe was dropped from consideration [to head DNI], Mr. Trump promised to announce a new nominee soon. But the list of people with the requisite experience who have not been critical of the president is slim.”

And this is where the administration is now. Between loyalty and competency, this president will choose loyalty every day of the week and dare Republicans to stop him (they occasionally do, as Ronny L. Jackson, Herman Cain and John Ratcliffe will acknowledge). Axios’s Jonathan Swan confirmed that Trump had told his advisers that “he wants to get rid of all of ‘the bad people.’” For Trump, “bad” means “loyal to ideals higher than Donald Trump.”

Back in October I said that foreign policy under Trump would get worse with a politically weakened D-team?

This is worse. This is what a banana republic looks like.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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