WASHINGTON – Democrats expressed outrage Friday over President Donald Trump’s decision to replace his acting intelligence chief after he got angry that U.S. lawmakers were briefed by administration officials on concerns about Russian attempts to interfere in the 2020 election.
U.S. intelligence officials told lawmakers Feb. 13 that Russia is mounting an effort to possibly steer the 2020 election in favor of Trump. After the hearing, the president reprimanded Joseph Maguire, the former acting director of national intelligence, and replaced him days later.
Democrats accused Trump of dumping Maguire is to shield the fact Russia may have intervened in the 2020 election to benefit him.
“American voters should decide American elections – not Vladimir Putin,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a tweet Thursday, referring to the Russian president. “Members of Congress should condemn the President’s reported efforts to dismiss threats to the integrity of our democracy to politicize our intel community.”
Pelosi said she and other lawmakers await another Trump administration election security briefing scheduled for March 10.
Sally Yates, the former deputy attorney general fired by Trump for not enforcing his immigration ban in 2017, called Trump’s actions “a screaming red siren.”
“This is a screaming red siren, but in the daily barrage of crazy, can we hear it?” she said in a Friday tweet. “Trump is not only trying to rewrite history of Russia’s intervention in 2016, he is now using the power of the presidency to conceal their 2020 scheme to re-elect him.”
Trump dismissed the reports as a “hoax” and said it was part of a “misinformation campaign” waged by Democrats.
He made a similar complaint during a campaign rally in Las Vegas. Trump claimed that the Democrats are using Russia as an excuse for their defeat in 2016, and that the Russian are just as apt to support a Democratic candidate like Bernie Sanders.
“These people are crazy,” Trump said of his opponents.
Former Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., tweeted that it was not a misinformation campaign, but rather a “sober assessment of our intelligence community. It should be taken seriously.”
Two administration officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, said Trump was mad because he believed he was blindsided by news of the briefing, hearing about it from a Republican lawmaker rather than his own staff. The officials said Trump had been planning to replace Maguire for a while. The administration officials also said there are questions as to whether Russia is trying to help Trump, or just inject chaos into the U.S. political system.
On Wednesday, the president replaced Maguire as acting director of national intelligence with Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany. The director of national intelligence is a Cabinet-level position that coordinates the activities of the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies.
A member of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., said he couldn’t discuss the classified briefing with lawmakers, but told USA TODAY he has met Grenell and has no reason to think ill of him he said his lack of experience in intelligence was a concern. Five previous directors of national intelligence had all spent careers with the complex subject, Himes said.
“The idea that it can be successfully accomplished by people with no intelligence experience is about as smart saying I should get open-heart surgery from someone with no medical degree. It’s that absurd,” Himes said. “That’s a job that is really excruciatingly difficult.”
In Russia, Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Putin’s government, disputed claims that it wants to help Trump win re-election.
“This is another in a series of paranoid reports, and we regret to say that their number will grow as the election approaches,” Peskov said, Russian news agency TASS reported. “They certainly have nothing to do with the truth.”
But Democrats have continued to criticize the president.
“We count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections,” tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “If reports are true and the President is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling.”
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on CNN that Trump would “rather credit Vladimir Putin’s information over the intelligence community’s information” about Russian interference in American elections.
Amid the back-and-forth, Trump said he is planning to appoint a new permanent director of national intelligence
“Four great candidates are under consideration at DNI. Decision within next few weeks!” Trump said in another tweet Friday. He did not name them. But one candidate has already said he doesn’t want the job.
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., an outspoken defender of Trump during impeachment, said Friday on Fox Business Network’s Mornings with Mari that he didn’t want the job after Trump floated his name for the role on Thursday.
Collins, who is running for Senate, said the post “is not a job that’s of interest to me, and it’s not one that I’d accept.”
Contributing: Bart Jansen