U.S. President Donald Trump appears to be getting closer to naming a new, permanent top intelligence official, announcing he has narrowed the list of possible candidates to a handful of finalists.
Word of a potential nominee to take over as the country's director of national intelligence (DNI) comes just days after Trump cast aside the acting director, reportedly over a briefing to lawmakers about Russian attempts to meddle in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections.
"Four great candidates are under consideration at DNI," Trump tweeted Friday. "Decision within next few weeks!"
The United States has been without a permanent director of national intelligence since mid-August 2019, when former Director Dan Coats stepped down following a series of public clashes with Trump over intelligence assessments.
Coats was replaced on a temporary basis by retired U.S. Admiral Joseph Maguire, a former Navy SEAL who had been heading up efforts at the National Counterterrorism Center.
But late Wednesday, the president announced he was replacing Maguire with U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a well-known Trump loyalist.
The New York Times reported Thursday the president made the switch after learning one of Maguire's top aides told lawmakers that Russia is seeking to boost his reelection during a classified briefing to lawmakers.
The Washington Post reported the president was irate after learning of the briefing, concerned that officials had shared information that could be used against him.
Trump on Friday accused Democrats of already trying to weaponize the information, calling in a hoax.
"Another misinformation campaign is being launched by Democrats in Congress saying that Russia prefers me to any of the Do Nothing Democrat candidates who still have been unable to, after two weeks, count their votes in Iowa," he tweeted Friday.
Officials at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and its election security office declined comment when contacted by VOA.
But the initial reaction from Democratic lawmakers was swift.
"I am gravely concerned," House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson said in a statement late Thursday.
"By firing Acting DNI Maguire because his staff provided the candid conclusions of the Intelligence Community to Congress regarding Russian meddling in the 2020 presidential election, the president is not only refusing to defend against foreign interference, he's inviting it," Thompson added.
House Intelligence Committee chairman, Democrat Adam Smith, who was allegedly at the classified briefing, also expressed concern.
"We count on the intelligence community to inform Congress of any threat of foreign interference in our elections," Schiff tweeted. "If reports are true and the president is interfering with that, he is again jeopardizing our efforts to stop foreign meddling. Exactly as we warned he would do."
The rocky relationship between Trump and U.S. intelligence agencies dates back to the 2016 presidential election, when the intelligence community concluded, "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible," the leading U.S. intelligence agencies wrote in an unclassified report released in 2017.
Those conclusions were backed up by a report in April 2019 by special counsel Robert Mueller, which found, "the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome."
Trump has consistently denied any Russian interference, repeatedly deferring to Putin's denials.
"He said he didn't meddle," Trump told reporters following a conversation with Putin in Vietnam. "He said he didn't meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times."
Still, U.S. intelligence officials have said, repeatedly, that not only did Russia meddle in 2016, but that it did so again in 2018 and that it would meddle in the 2020 presidential elections, as well.
"It wasn't a single attempt. They're doing it as we sit here," Mueller told lawmakers last July. "And they expect to do it during the next campaign."
The White House is facing a March 11 deadline to nominate a new, permanent director of national intelligence or risk having the position go vacant.
Under U.S. law, the president must at least nominate someone to a position requiring Senate confirmation within 210 days of the position being vacated, meaning the acting director, whether it was Maguire or Grenell, would have to step down.
"The clock doesn't restart each time the president names someone else [as acting director]," Steve Vladek, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told VOA.
"If no nominee is submitted in time, Grenell ceases to be the acting DNI, and no one can replace him," he added. "Someone still has to 'exercise the functions' of the acting DNI, but that would fall to whoever the senior person at ODNI currently is."