Trump’s Latest ‘Russia Scandal’ Is Less Than It Appears

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- From the perspective of the #Resistance, the scoops were both terrifying and vindicating: An intelligence official told lawmakers last week that the Russians were meddling again in U.S. elections and seeking to re-elect President Donald Trump. This infuriated the president, who abruptly fired the current director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, and replaced him with a loyalist, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Ric Grenell.

Unfortunately, there is less to this story than Trump’s opponents would like. There is no formal intelligence assessment, and the new DNI is only temporary. This is not a case of the president trying to suppress or distort intelligence.

The Trump vs. the Intelligence Community narrative is so appealing to the resistance because it fits two of its favorite themes. The first is that Trump already colluded once with the Kremlin to win an election, and will again. The second is that Trump is now empowered, after the Senate acquitted him in the impeachment trial, to purge the government of his enemies.

As Representative Adam Schiff tweeted, referring to stories in the New York Times and Washington Post: “We count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections. If reports are true and the President is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling. Exactly as we warned he would do.”

True, Trump provides opponents with ample ammunition for their narratives about Russia and vengeance. But Schiff is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. If anyone would know about an assessment that Russia was trying to re-elect Trump, he would. So was there such an assessment?

In fact, Schiff — who was present at the briefing in question — knows that there is no formal intelligence finding that Russia is meddling on behalf of Trump. Administration and House Republican sources tell me that the intelligence official who was briefing the committee went “off script” when asked about Russia’s preference for Trump in the presidential election. No other representatives from the intelligence community at the briefing backed up her assertion, these sources say, nor did the briefers provide specific intelligence, such as intercepted emails or conversations, to support the claim.

Jake Tapper of CNN is apparently hearing a similar story. On Friday he tweeted that one of his sources says the intelligence did not say the Russians had a “preference,” only that Trump “is someone they can work with, he’s a dealmaker.”

The second narrative involves the decision to make Grenell the interim director of national intelligence.

It’s true that Grenell lacks intelligence experience and that he has been an outspoken supporter of Trump. And while reports say Maguire was fired over last week’s briefing, White House officials tell me otherwise, noting he was scheduled to leave next month anyway. (Although the departure of Maguire’s principal deputy, Andrew Hallman, suggests deeper tensions with the White House.)

Regardless, Grenell would be an odd choice if Trump wished to downplay Russian threats. To start, he is a longtime Russia hawk. Last year, for example, he warned German companies building the NordStream II pipeline between Germany and Russia that they would risk U.S. sanctions if they went forward with the project.

More important, Grenell himself has said he will only be acting director, and that he expects the president will soon nominate someone else for the position. Intelligence assessments involve the input of 16 agencies and often take months to complete, so it would be near impossible for someone serving as acting director for a short period of time to suppress or alter intelligence products. (Maguire, by the way, was also an acting director.)

So appointing Grenell may be less an effort to censor intelligence than a bit of hostage politics with the Senate. If the Senate doesn’t confirm Trump’s nominee, Grenell can serve for months. The two leading candidates for the job are Representative Chris Stewart, a Republican from Utah who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, and Pete Hoekstra, the current ambassador to the Netherlands and former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Both would likely face opposition from Democrats. The White House is hoping to force Democrats to hold their noses and not delay the confirmation.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.

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