Richard Grenell: Pundit, Envoy, Spokesman. Spy?
His ascension to the highest intelligence post in the United States heightens fears that the Trump administration is politicizing intelligence.
Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, has earned President Donald Trump’s favor through fierce partisanship, scolding the German government for its positions on everything from Iran to trade, denouncing Democratic rivals on Fox News, and trolling the press on Twitter.
Now his elevation by Trump to serve as the frontman for the world’s most powerful intelligence network is sending tremors through U.S. diplomatic and intelligence communities, which fear he will spin the facts to suit the president’s political needs.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Grenell “is committed to a non-political, non-partisan approach as head of the Intelligence Community.” But several of Grenell’s former colleagues see him as a poor fit for the role, saying he’d make a better propaganda minister than an impartial sounding board for the president on intelligence matters or a steward of the nation’s most sensitive secrets.
“Everyone knows he has no qualifications for this job,” said Mark Groombridge, a former aide to John Bolton who worked closely with Grenell at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. “Ric has many talents and a considerable skill set,” added Groombridge, a vocal Trump critic. But the demands of impartiality required by the president’s principal intelligence coordinator “don’t comport with that skill set at all,” he said.
Neither the State Department nor Grenell responded to request for comment.
Grenell’s appointment as acting director of national intelligence—he announced on Twitter that he will not get the full-time job—follows the abrupt ouster of Joseph Maguire, until Thursday the acting director of national intelligence. Trump fired Maguire after an aide warned House lawmakers that Russia is interfering in the 2020 presidential campaign with an eye toward favoring Trump’s reelection. It also coincides with the appointment to a senior post at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence of former top National Security Council official Kash Patel, who sought to discredit a previous probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The developments have fueled speculation among intelligence specialists that Trump is seeking to kill off any scrutiny of Russia’s role in the 2020 election. U.S. officials, meanwhile, informed Senator Bernie Sanders that Russia is also seeking to aid his campaign in the Democratic primaries, the Washington Post reported.
“The thought that immediately pops to mind is that this appointment is being made more for political reasons than for professional reasons,” a former director of national intelligence, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy. “I think it’s hard to argue that he is qualified to serve as the president’s principal intelligence advisor.”
Grenell’s ascension to a powerful position in Trump’s cabinet, even in an acting position, also reveals the sea change of attitudes about LGBT rights in the U.S. in the past decade. Grenell is the first openly gay person to be appointed to a cabinet-level position, even in an acting capacity. “Fifty years ago a gay man or woman couldn’t work in the intelligence community. Today President Trump is appointing an openly gay man to serve as Acting Director of National Intelligence,” Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, a prominent Trump ally, tweeted.
In 2012, Grenell was forced out of his job as a top campaign advisor to then-presidential hopeful Mitt Romney amid a groundswell of pressure from anti-gay conservative circles in the Republican Party. (At the time, Grenell also faced scrutiny over fiery social media posts seen as misogynistic and sexist. He later apologized for the posts.) “It’s not that the campaign cared whether Ric Grenell was gay,” one Republican advisor told the New York Times at the time. “They believed this was a nonissue. But they didn’t want to confront the religious right.”
The acting director of national intelligence appointment was received warmly by Britain’s incoming ambassador to Washington, Karen Pierce, who recalled meeting Grenell when he served as Bolton’s spokesman at the United Nations: “I like him a lot.”
“I think that makes him the administration’s most senior LGBT appointment,” added Pierce, who is wrapping up her term as Britain’s U.N. ambassador. “And that’s terrific.”
But Grenell’s fast ascent in the Trump administration has left some of his detractors in the government scratching their heads. “Grenell’s meteoric rise is the clearest evidence in the universe that there is no God or no justice,” said one former U.S. official who worked closely with him.
Once in Berlin, Grenell quickly established himself as one of Trump’s highest-profile and most outspoken envoys. It quickly won him plaudits in the White House and inner circle of Trump supporters, but it also alienated him from power brokers in Berlin.
On Jan. 15, Grenell railed against a Washington Post article reporting that Trump threatened auto tariffs on Europe if it didn’t crack down on Iran. One day after Grenell slammed the story as “fake news,” saying he had no knowledge of this happening and demanding a retraction of the story, the German defense minister confirmed it was accurate. To several current and former State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy, the incident showcased how German policymakers, bristling at Grenell’s leadership style, have shut out the U.S. ambassador from some of their key internal policy deliberations.
“There is real value to having an ambassador who can connect directly with the inner circle of the president and not just go through layers of State Department bureaucracy,” said one former U.S. diplomat. “But that is only valuable if that channel is used … to get things done. I find it hard to identify specific accomplishments that you can chalk up to [Grenell’s] close relationship with the White House that has made the German-American relationship more effective.”
As ambassador, Grenell took on two additional portfolios that reflected his growing clout in the Trump administration. He positioned himself as the architect of a new administration-wide effort to decriminalize homosexuality worldwide—though some human rights groups say they haven’t yet seen any practical effects of the campaign. And in October last year, Trump also named him to be special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo peace talks, a job he held concurrently with his post in Berlin. It’s still unclear if he will retain his special envoy post in his new role.
Grenell can remain in the acting director of national intelligence job for up to 210 days, provided Trump nominates a new director of national intelligence for Senate confirmation, according to U.S. law on federal vacancies. Several officials who spoke to Foreign Policy suggested that Grenell’s day-to-day duties as ambassador will fall on the embassy’s second-in-command, deputy chief of mission Robin Quinville, even as Grenell retains his formal title.
Foreign Policy’s Jacob Wallace contributed to this report.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch