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Why the US ambassador to Germany is now also the new acting head of US intelligence

Oh, and he’s the special envoy in Kosovo-Serbia talks, too.

Munich Security Conference (MSC) 2020
Richard Grenell with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Munich, Germany, earlier this month.
Johannes Simon/Getty Images

President Donald Trump on Wednesday named current US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell as the new acting director of national intelligence, a move that caught many in the US intelligence community by surprise.

Grenell is an unconventional pick: The ambassador has little experience with intelligence work and is widely seen as Trump loyalist above all else. His selection for the job — albeit in a temporary role — has some veterans of the US intelligence community worried about the potential for partisan influence on sensitive national security issues.

One former CIA officer told the New York Times, which first broke the story, that “this is a job requiring leadership, management, substance and secrecy. [Grenell] doesn’t have the kind of background and experience we would expect for such a critical position.” Another official who spoke to the Times referred to Grenell as an “ultraright-wing sniper.”

As acting DNI, Grenell will oversee 17 intelligence agencies on an interim basis, including the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. He will also serve on the National Security Council.

However, even stranger, Grenell will also stay in his current post as US ambassador to Germany. Oh, and he’ll stay in his other job — as special envoy in Kosovo-Serbia talks — as well.

On Thursday, Grenell clarified on Twitter that he will only be serving as DNI temporarily. “The President will announce the Nominee (not me) sometime soon,” he tweeted.

But even if it’s temporary, the question remains: How, exactly, does one oversee America’s 17 intelligence agencies while sitting in an embassy in Berlin over 4,000 miles away from Washington, DC? Or, if the other way around, how does one act as an effective ambassador to Germany while being 4,000 miles away in Washington?

John Koenig, who previously served as US ambassador to Cyprus, told Politico that Grenell’s dual role as ambassador and acting DNI isn’t “realistic at all.”

“Being ambassador to Germany is a full-time job,” Koenig said. “It’s really very demanding. So I really can’t see how you can do that difficult job and do the equally and more demanding job of being acting DNI at the same time.”

Grenell’s appointment is historic: He’ll be the first openly gay Cabinet member in US history. But his appointment is also controversial, beyond the obvious logistical challenges.

Grenell has been a contentious figure in Berlin since he was confirmed in spring 2018. He’s vocally supported right-wing leaders and policies in Europe, and he demanded on Twitter that German companies stop doing business with Iran following new US sanctions on the country, among other breaks from traditional diplomatic norms.

Last year, the German magazine Der Spiegel reported that Grenell has found himself “politically isolated” in Germany and described him, based on the accounts of more than 30 sources, as “a vain, narcissistic person” with little knowledge of Germany or the rest of Europe.

There’s also the fact that Grenell may have been put into the acting DNI role to protect the president’s political interests.

Grenell is replacing former National Counterterrorism Center director and retired Vice Admiral Joseph Maguire in the acting role. On Thursday afternoon, the Washington Post reported that Trump berated Maguire last week over a classified briefing one of his deputies had given Congress on 2020 election security.

The New York Times reports that the official, Shelby Pierson, “warned House lawmakers last week that Russia was interfering in the 2020 campaign to try to get President Trump re-elected” and that that briefing “angered Mr. Trump, who complained that Democrats would use it against him.”

That, it seems, may have torpedoed Maguire’s chances for the top job: The retired vice admiral was reportedly a leading choice until last week.

Grenell will be yet another “acting” Cabinet official

Though the DNI job normally requires Senate confirmation, Grenell is able to take over as intelligence chief because of the Vacancies Act, a 1998 law that allows another administration official in an “advice and consent position” — one that requires Senate confirmation — to assume an acting role for a limited duration.

The president’s preference for “acting” officials in senior administration positions is well-documented. “I sort of like ‘acting,’” Trump told reporters in January last year. “It gives me more flexibility. Do you understand that? I like ‘acting.’ So we have a few that are ‘acting.’ We have a great, great Cabinet.”

Former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who left the job in August, was the last Senate-confirmed official to hold the post, and it’s unclear who might be in the running for the permanent DNI job now.

In any case, the clock is ticking for Grenell: His tenure could be limited to just three weeks if Trump doesn’t nominate a permanent candidate before March 11.

The president’s last pick for the top intelligence job, Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe, withdrew from contention in August 2019 after it became clear that he was unlikely to be confirmed by the Senate.