President Donald Trump felt blindsided when he learned belatedly that intelligence officials briefed House lawmakers that Russia is continuing to interfere in US elections -- and that Democrats elicited their view that the Russians favor Trump’s re-election, according to people familiar with the situation.
Trump blamed Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, for the episode and the failure to inform him. On Wednesday, the president announced that he was replacing Maguire, a veteran intelligence official, with Ric Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany and a staunch Trump supporter.
The chain of events underscores the continued tensions between Trump and intelligence officials that he and his supporters often depict as part of a “deep state” undermining his presidency.
The classified briefing on Feb. 13 was delivered by Shelby Pierson, the intelligence official charged with monitoring issues related to election security. Among those attending were Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who led the House Democrats who impeached Trump, and the panel’s top Republican, Representative Devin Nunes of California.
In response to questions from Democrats, lawmakers were told that Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, prefer Trump over his Democratic challengers and is still actively interfering in this year’s election, according to the people. But little information has emerged on any specific or ongoing interference by Russia detailed in the briefing last week.
Trump said at a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Friday that he was told last week that Democrats were promulgating “a rumor” that Russia sought his re-election.
“I was told it was happening, I was told a week ago,” he said. “They said, ‘You know they’re trying to start a rumor.’ It’s disinformation -- that Putin wants to make sure I get re-elected.”
He added: “Doesn’t he want to see who the Democrat’s going to be? Doesn’t he want to see Bernie, who honeymooned in Moscow? These people are crazy.” Sanders has said he has visited Moscow but didn’t honeymoon there.
Trump has sought to cultivate a relationship with Putin, regarded by most US lawmakers as an adversary. Trump acknowledged at his rally: “We want to get along with Russia. We want to get along with China.”
The information provided to the House committee was described by one official as more of a general assessment. Democrats asked leading questions to obtain the analysis that Russia favors Trump’s re-election, according to a US official and another person familiar with the matter.
The White House suspects Democrats hoped the intelligence analysis would be leaked, an official said.
Another official said Pierson was challenged by Republicans during the briefing about the raw intelligence behind the claim, and weren’t given specifics. The same officials said Trump’s anger at Maguire focused on the role that Schiff -- who Trump considers a prime nemesis -- allegedly played.
The president expressed his frustration to Maguire in an Oval Office meeting the day after the House briefing, according to officials. Trump was told that Pierson, who delivered the briefing, felt her comments were being misrepresented and that she could only say that the Russians were continuing to interfere in US politics -- not that they were putting a finger on the scale to help Trump.
Trump’s ire over the intelligence briefing was reported earlier by the New York Times.
Schiff tweeted that “we count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections.” At the same time, Schiff seemed to hedge on what information, exactly, had been provided to him and other House members.
“If reports are true and the President is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling,” Schiff said.
Democrats have blasted Trump for replacing Maguire with Grenell, who has little experience in intelligence-gathering or analysis, and several key Republicans have remained silent on the decision.
“By firing Acting DNI Maguire because his staff provided the candid conclusions of the Intelligence Community to Congress regarding Russian meddling in the 2020 Presidential election, the President is not only refusing to defend against foreign interference, he’s inviting it,” House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson of Mississippi complained in a statement.
On Friday, Maguire’s deputy Andrew Hallman said he was stepping down as the DNI’s principal executive, offering praise for his former boss, who he called a “lifelong patriot and public servant.”
“As I prepare to depart, I have complete confidence in the IC workforce and the enduring qualities of the community — stability, integrity, and relentless dedication to serving the nation,” Hallman said in a statement, referring to the intelligence community. “These qualities will guide the IC through this next chapter and the uncertainties that come with change.”
Grenell is expected to fill the senior DNI role on a short-term basis. Trump tweeted on Friday that he has four candidates under consideration to be nominated for the job. But one potential candidate who Trump floated as a potential nominee late on Thursday -- Georgia Representative Doug Collins -- said he wasn’t interested.
Collins called Trump’s comments “humbling” and “amazing,” but said he wants to stick with plans to challenge Senator Kelly Loeffler for the Georgia seat this fall, even though Loeffler is backed by the much of the Republican establishment including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Earlier, Trump was close to nominating Representative Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican, as director of national intelligence, according to two people familiar with the deliberations. But that idea was scrapped when Trump learned of a 2016 video clip in which Stewart said “Donald Trump does not represent Republican ideals, he is our Mussolini.”