Cripple the Intelligence Agencies? Not Smart

President Trump is intensifying his efforts to undermine the nation’s intelligence agencies.

On Wednesday, Mr. Trump announced that he was replacing the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, with Richard Grenell, the ambassador to Germany.

Mr. Maguire is a retired Navy admiral who previously served as the head of the National Counterterrorism Center. Mr. Trump tapped him to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last August to replace the outgoing director, Dan Coats. Until recently, Mr. Maguire was thought to have a decent shot at becoming the permanent director of the office, overseeing the nation’s spy agencies.

But that was before one of his aides gave a classified briefing on Feb. 13 to the House Intelligence Committee, in which she warned that Russia was attempting to meddle in the 2020 election with an eye toward aiding Mr. Trump — as it had in 2016.

Mr. Trump doesn’t like to hear about election interference, much less about interference by Russia. He sees the entire topic as an effort to devalue his 2016 victory. Members of his administration, as well as congressional Republicans, know that this is a matter to be broached delicately, if at all.

When the president learned of the briefing from a member of the committee, he was furious — not over the threat of foreign meddling, but that Congress had been told about it. According to a report in The Times, he was especially miffed that the meeting had included the committee’s Democratic chairman, Adam Schiff, who oversaw the recent impeachment proceedings.

The president took Mr. Maguire to the woodshed over what he saw as an act of disloyalty. He was angry about not being alerted earlier about the briefing and fretted that such delicate information would be “weaponized” by his political enemies, The Times reported. Less than a week later, Mr. Maguire was out. Administration officials insisted that the timing was a coincidence.

What is obviously not a coincidence is that Mr. Trump is once again turning for a critical appointment to someone who is short on relevant expertise but long on loyalty to him. The director of national intelligence, a position created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, coordinates intelligence gathering and analysis across 17 federal agencies. The post has been held by former diplomats, senior military officers and, for more than six years, James Clapper, a seasoned intelligence professional.

Mr. Trump’s replacement pick, Mr. Grenell, has little intelligence experience and has never run a large bureaucracy. Before he was dispatched to Berlin, he worked as a public affairs consultant and commentator for Fox News. Before that, he was a communications official in President George W. Bush’s administration.

Although he is taking on a hugely important new job, Mr. Grenell will continue in his capacity as ambassador. As with so many of his appointments, Mr. Trump has installed Mr. Grenell in an “acting” capacity. This puts the president’s appointees on a short leash and avoids the inconvenience of Senate confirmation hearings.

Mr. Grenell has been an aggressive public cheerleader for Mr. Trump, fiercely and frequently defending him on Fox News and on social media. That appears to be the qualification that truly matters to this president — especially when it comes to overseeing an intelligence community that Mr. Trump has always believed has been out to get him.

Mr. Trump’s effort to pack the administration with political loyalists has gained momentum since the Senate acquitted him on impeachment charges earlier this month. In recent weeks, the president has removed multiple officials with connections to impeachment, including top National Security Council and Pentagon officials.

The purge is expected to continue, with anyone suspected of insufficient loyalty at risk.

Presidents have tended to shy away from politicizing national intelligence — or at least tried to avoid the perception of such politicization. But Mr. Trump has made clear that he will not tolerate any discussion of Russia’s meddling in American politics, no matter how compelling the evidence. He is sending a very public message: In this White House, protecting Donald Trump’s interests is what matters.

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