The talking point President Donald Trump and top administration officials are using to explain the abrupt dismissal of acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire — namely, that his dismissal was required by law — doesn’t add up.
Maguire was dismissed last week following a classified briefing to the House Intelligence Committee on February 13 in which one of his staffers, Shelby Pierson, reportedly told members of Congress that Russia is already interfering in the 2020 election, and again has “developed a preference” for Trump.
Trump was reportedly blindsided by the briefing, and responded the next day by unloading on Maguire during an Oval Office meeting in which the president expressed concern that “Democrats would use the information against him,” according to NBC.
A Trump loyalist with scant intelligence community qualifications, US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, was announced as Maguire’s replacement last Wednesday.
While there are legitimate concerns about the strength of the intelligence Pierson cited during the February 13 briefing, the timeline surrounding Maguire’s dismissal certainly gives the impression he was ousted for political reasons. But in hopes of pushing back against that perception, Trump administration officials offered an alternative explanation on Sunday.
During an interview on ABC’s This Week, National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien claimed Maguire had to go because he couldn’t serve as acting director of national intelligence past March 11 due to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, a law governing acting appointments.
“Admiral Maguire’s time as the acting DNI was up in a week or two,” O’Brien said. “We were looking for someone who was Senate-confirmed under the Vacancy Act. We needed a Senate-confirmed official to come in and replace him. And so we went with a highly qualified person, Ambassador Grenell.”
O’Brien made comments suggesting the intelligence agencies are becoming increasingly politicized — “There are these reports that [Russia] wants Bernie Sanders to get elected. But that’s no surprise. He honeymooned in Moscow,” he said — and denied Trump was upset with Maguire over the House Intelligence Committee briefing.
WH national security adviser denies reports that Trump was angry over a DNI briefing to lawmakers that Russia is meddling in 2020, with a preference for Trump.— This Week (@ThisWeekABC) February 23, 2020
“That’s not true. I was in that meeting and the president was not angry with Joe Maguire.” https://t.co/kHUIBjiIBB pic.twitter.com/fkIIT9tY32
O’Brien’s talking point was echoed on Meet the Press by Marc Short, chief of staff for Vice President Mike Pence, who also insisted Maguire’s dismissal had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the fact he couldn’t stay in his role longer due to the Vacancies Act.
It is not the case, however, that Maguire couldn’t have served past March 11.
Eric Columbus, a former Obama administration Justice Department official, told Vox that Maguire could’ve stayed on as acting director of national intelligence indefinitely had Trump nominated someone to become Senate-confirmed before March 11.
And Columbus pointed out that Maguire was confirmed by the Senate in December 2018 for a role as director of the National Counterterrorism Center, which means the concern O’Brien expressed about finding “someone who was Senate-confirmed under the Vacancy Act” wasn’t an issue in his case.
Also, if the Trump administration is really concerned about the March 11 cutoff, then appointing Grenell to the acting role won’t address it, as he now faces the same deadline that Maguire did before his dismissal. (The Trump administration has already announced that Grenell won’t be nominated for the role.)
So the talking point the Trump administration is using to dispel concerns that Maguire’s dismissal was politically motivated doesn’t carry water. Nonetheless, ahead of his departure for India, Trump pushed the same unsound explanation.
“His time came up. I think it was March 11 — his time comes up. He ran out of time,” Trump said. “So he had to leave on March 11.”
Trump lies about the circumstances surrounding Maguire's departure as acting DNI, claims "his time was up." (Maguire could've stayed on until someone else was confirmed by the Senate for the job.) pic.twitter.com/nU73YohlWv— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) February 23, 2020
The real explanation for the timing of Maguire’s departure likely has more to do with what an unnamed senior White House official told my colleague Alex Ward last week.
“Anyone from here on out that opposed POTUS will get fired,” the official said, alluding to the House Intelligence Committee briefing.
I asked a senior White House official if Trump really removed Maguire over the Russia briefing. Official didn’t mince words.— Alex Ward (@AlexWardVox) February 21, 2020
“That’s absolutely why. Anyone from here on out that opposed POTUS will get fired.”
That bad, I asked?
“Yup,” official said. “He’s not f***ing around.”
Maguire’s ouster may be part of Trump’s broader effort to get rid of government officials he perceives as being insufficiently loyal. On Sunday, Jonathan Swan reported for Axios that the Trump administration has “assembled detailed lists of disloyal government officials to oust — and trusted pro-Trump people to replace them.”
The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.