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Richard Grenell, Uberhawk Trumpist, Takes Command of the Deep State

Grenell is popular on the Right, but faces an unclear future in the Senate.

There is nothing to fear but fear itself. 

If President Donald Trump didn’t believe that maxim of one of his predecessors before his recent impeachment acquittal — not after multiple bankruptcies, marriages and a daredevil presidential campaign — he certainly believes it now. Exonerated in his own mind  and about to face a Democratic Party—if the vicissitudes in Vegas last night are any indication, in full meltdown—the president is positively buoyant about his standing these days.

Step one (after three frustrating years of encounters with American rule of law), has been to extend clemency to those he deems fit: Rod Blagojevich, the “Trumpocrat” former Illinois governor who once attempted to sell the Senate seat of Trump’s predecessor, Michael Milken, the junk bond king whose prosecution brought an end to the decade, the Eighties, that made Trump famous, and soon, perhaps Roger Stone, an old consigliere sentenced to three years in federal prison Thursday, and perhaps even Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder who says such an offer has been floated before.

Step two, Trump is working to make reality the advice of former intelligence official Sue Gordon, who resigned last August, saying, “you should have your team.” A euphoric energy has overtaken the White House, among rabid Trump partisans anyways, as the president has installed John McEntee as head of personnel, restored longtime aide Hope Hicks to the inner sanctum, and now, appointed Ric Grenell, “Trump’s man in Europe,” as Trump’s guy in the deep state. 

Grenell’s appointment could prove a watershed. 

Grenell’s new, formal position is Acting Director of National Intelligence, which, presumably, will eventually require Senate confirmation. Although, that’s not fully clear, as the president has a demonstrated flare for keeping personnel in “acting” capacities as the maneuver maximizes his flexibility and limits the scrutiny attracted. Mick Mulvaney, in power as White House chief of staff, has been “acting” in that role for two Christmases. That Grenell’s appointment, legally, must be ratified by the Senate throws a wrench into such a gambit; a timeline for confirmation hearings is unclear. Perhaps, both sides think they are going to lose. All signs, after the impeachment miscalculation, are that Congressional Democrats are seeking to avoid further defeats ahead of the November election. The legal hijinks will have to be worked out quietly on both sides.

I met Grenell in the autumn of 2018, when he was still cutting his teeth as ambassador to Germany. What was clear: he viewed his role as a sledgehammer to cajole the Europeans into the American line on Iran, he was at ease with the conservative operative class, and he was plainly ambitious. His title was a fig leaf for his larger role: Trump’s eyes and ears on the continent. His tenure in Berlin was clearly a rehearsal for bigger things. Most recently, Grenell was a runner-up to Robert C. O’Brien for national security advisor. Trump’s fourth NSA has proven his quietest, clearly by design, after his first, Michael Flynn, wound up a subject of prosecution, his second, H.R. McMaster, an object of hatred among Trump loyalists, and his third, John Bolton, a party to the president’s own prosecution. 

Grenell’s tenure as DNI will be strange and new. Trump’s clearly been flirting with such a bold move for a while, as he’s considered Fred Fleitz, Bolton’s pugilistic former chief of staff and now head of the rowdy Center for Security Policy, for that role. Like Fleitz, Grenell owes at least a part of his career to Bolton, now scourge of the administration. Grenell first came to prominence as spox for Bolton when he was in New York as U.N. ambassador. Grenell doubtless hopes to avoid his old boss’s fate, whether it be as persona non grata in the White House, or as someone who had his career sidelined by the Senate.

What Grenell shares with mustachioed ex-mentor: an obsession with Iran. There is precedent for an Iran hawk in such a role– it was less than two years ago that Mike Pompeo ran the show at Langley. The Iran front has quieted, at least from Washington’s perspective, in recent weeks, after a red hot opening to the new decade. What’s not clear is if Grenell will want to use his new role to restart the fire. 

about the author

Curt Mills is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, where he previously served as senior reporter. He specializes in foreign policy and campaign coverage and has worked at The National Interest, U.S. News and World Report, Washington Examiner, and the Spectator, and his work has appeared in UnHerd and Newsweek. He was a 2018-2019 Robert Novak Journalism fellow.

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