This is what White House control of the U.S. intelligence apparatus looks like: the acting director of national intelligence, Adm. Joseph Maguire, quashed the finding of his inspector general that a still-unnamed whistleblower had made serious allegations about President Trump that urgently need to be addressed by Congress. Its preview of how the president will seek to use U.S. intelligence agencies to keep himself in office.
Advocates of impeachment are emboldened. Partisans of the president are blaming the Bidens, never mind the lack of evidence. Less noticed is the fact that Trump’s demonization of the intelligence community—what he calls “a Crooked and Demented Deep State”–is paying dividends in time for the 2020 election.
Thanks to Maguire, Congress has yet to see the whistleblower’s complaint, while Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Guiliani have many news cycles to confirm (and deny and confirm) that the matter involves the government of Ukraine and Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential candidate. Earlier this year Giuliani traveled to Ukraine in an apparent bid to have Hunter Biden scrutinized for the large financial payments he received from a Ukrainian natural gas firm that has been suspected of corruption. Anti-corruption activists in Ukraine say Joe Biden supported their efforts as vice president and that there is no evidence that Hunter Biden did anything other than give a veneer of respectability to Ukrainian oligarch. Trump wants the Ukrainian government to provide the “evidence” he wants
Maguire is now playing the role at ODNI that Attorney General Bill Barr plays more openly at the Justice Department: enabler of White House spin and enforcer of the president’s whims. Shane Harris of the Washington Post told Slate he believes Maguire is “not a partisan” and not “not really a big fan of the president.” Harris suggests Maguire is not happy with the position he is in. Nevertheless, Maguire followed the dubious legal opinion of Barr’s Justice Department that he cannot forward the complaint to Congress, as the whistleblower law clearly mandates.
And that is what White House control of U.S. intelligence means heading into an election year. Even a senior official who wants to present himself a non-partisan, nonetheless enables a White House scheme to enlist a foreign government dependent on U.S. aid, in his election campaign. The same official is not publicly disputing the administration’s claim that it need not disclose a whistleblower’s allegation. The arguments against impeachment are collapsing along with the independence of the intelligence community.
The details of Trump’s latest abuse of office are important but so is his bureaucratic means evading accountability. The Office of National Intelligence is an obscure entity, among the youngest of the secret U.S. intelligence agencies. Created after 9/11, the ODNI is less an intelligence agency than a clearinghouse. It is supposed to synthesize and harmonize the work of 16 other U.S. intelligence agencies. Because the ODNI has limited statutory and budgetary authority over the other agencies, the position has been regarded as something of a figurehead that is less important as the CIA director.
Trump is out to change that. He forced out the previous DNI, Dan Coats, because he publicly supported CIA findings on Iran and North Korea at a hearing in January. The next day Trump cancelled his intelligence briefing with Coats and CIA director Gina Haspel and tweeted “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school.” From that day forth, Coats was a dead spy walking. He quit in July.
Maguire, director of the counterterrorism center at ODNI, was named as an interim director in August after Capitol Hill Republicans spurned Trump’s original nominee, Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas, as a lightweight. So while Trump’s brazen bad faith obsesses his critics, left and right, his presidential authority still commands loyalty in the ranks of the agencies he demonizes.
Is Maguire privately unhappy with Trump? Or is he campaigning to win a permanent appointment? It’s hard to tell from his actions. Whatever his personal feelings, Maguire’s refusal to pass the whistleblower’s complaint to Congress gave the president a big tactical advantage over opponents who are encumbered with respect for ethics, procedure and norms.
Just as Barr’s prejudicial summary of the Mueller report enabled Trump to frame the special prosecutor’s nuanced findings as complete exoneration, so Maguire’s suppression of the whistleblower complaint has given Trump a week to frame the unsubstantiated insinuations about Hunter Biden as a gargantuan pseudo-scandal on the scale of Hillary Clinton’s emails or Uranium One, or the Comey memos, or the Carter Page FISA warrant–none of which have been found to involve the violation of any law. (Barr’s Justice Department is still investigating the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation).
Maguire’s scheduled appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday will be a test of his character, Congress’s backbone, and the independence of U.S. intelligence agencies in 2020. Whether the Maguire is allowed to testify remains to be seen. Either way, Trump’s intention to use the U.S. intelligence community to stifle his critics and promote his own reelection has already enjoyed an early success.