‘He’S in Vengeance Mode’: Intelligence Veterans Sound the Alarm Over Trump’s Post-Election ‘bloodlust’ and ‘Decapitation Strike’ at the Pentagon
- President Donald Trump is still refusing to concede the election after handily losing to President-elect Joe Biden, and the Trump administration is doing everything in his power to stymie Biden’s transition team.
- But national security veterans and former intelligence officials told Insider that, in many ways, the biggest risk to the US isn’t a rocky transition, but what the president himself might do in the 65 days between now and when he leaves office.
- Since Trump lost the election, nearly a dozen senior government officials have been fired, forced to resign, or resigned in protest, including the defense secretary, and there may still be more shoes to drop.
- “Trump seems to wake up every day with a kind of anxiety or hatred,” Bob Deitz, the former NSA general counsel, told Insider. “He didn’t get reelected, so he’s in vengeance mode. His bloodlust is rising up.”
- “In terms of damage that can be wrought, if Donald Trump wants to make some really atrocious choices as president on his way out, he can probably do more damage that way than just blinding the incoming president,” said one former senior Justice Department official.
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It’s been nearly two weeks since the election, and President Donald Trump still refuses to concede to President-elect Joe Biden despite handily losing both the electoral college and national popular vote to him. Instead, Trump and those around him are alternating between claiming that he won the race and claiming without evidence the election was stolen from him, while purging government agencies of perceived enemies and stacking them with loyalists.
Simultaneously, Biden is plowing full steam ahead with building a COVID-19 task force, staffing up his transition team, and preparing for Inauguration Day on January 20.
The juxtaposition between the two camps raises a question that hasn’t been tested in modern US history: what happens when a democratically elected president is denied the chance at a smooth transition because the incumbent refuses to concede and hamstrings the agencies responsible for maintaining stability?
In many ways, four national security veterans told Insider the biggest risk to the US isn’t what Trump is doing to hamper Biden — who will take office regardless of whether Trump concedes — but what the president himself might do in the 65 days between now and when he leaves office in January.
“One worries that a person like Trump, who’s pissed off at the world and sitting there sucking his thumb and feeling sorry for himself, will wake up at three in the morning and tweet something that could be really destabilizing,” Bob Deitz, the former general counsel at the National Security Agency, told Insider. “There’s also the concern that he might just — and he’s been trying to do this — declassify information about Russia because of his vendetta over the Mueller investigation.”
Since Trump lost the election, the following officials were fired, stepped down, or resigned in protest: the secretary of defense, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, the defense secretary’s chief of staff, the deputy chief of staff, the National Security Agency’s general counsel, the Department of Homeland Security’s assistant director for cybersecurity, the Department of Energy’s head of National Nuclear Security Administration, the DHS’s assistant undersecretary for international affairs, and the head of the Justice Department’s Election Crimes division.
More shoes may drop soon. Trump has been furious for months with FBI Director Christopher Wray and Attorney General William Barr over their refusal to open investigations targeting the Bidens to give Trump a pre-election boost in the polls. The president is also said to be frustrated with CIA Director Gina Haspel after she and other officials strongly opposed his push to broadly declassify intelligence about Russia that could compromise sources and methods.
And in the last several days, Chris Krebs, the head of the DHS’s Cybersecurity Infrastructure and Security Agency who played a robust role in countering Trump’s conspiracy theories about voter and election fraud, told associates he expected to be fired by the White House.
Trump’s post-election ‘bloodlust’
Since losing the election, “Trump seems to wake up every day with a kind of anxiety or hatred,” Deitz said. “He didn’t get reelected, so he’s in vengeance mode. His bloodlust is rising up. And he’ll go after people like Wray and Gina Haspel.”
“I assumed she was untouchable,” said Deitz, who worked with Haspel at the CIA in the early 2000s. “But I have colleagues more knowledgeable than I am who think she’s going to get bounced.”
He added that he was concerned “in a very personal way” about Trump’s decision to install Michael Ellis, a former White House official and aide to California congressman Devin Nunes, as the NSA’s new general counsel. US intelligence agencies are traditionally meant to be insulated from political forces, and NSA lawyers, in particular, are responsible for ensuring the agency doesn’t use its vast electronic and cyber surveillance powers to target Americans.
“There haven’t been that many general counsels at the NSA, and we meet from time to time. I know all of them, and every single one of us is nonpartisan,” Deitz said. “There were certainly some Republicans and some Democrats, but by and large, there were no partisans. There weren’t any drum beaters, and this guy, Michael Ellis, he’s precisely the kind of person you don’t want at the agency.”
The Washington Post reported that Ellis’ appointment to the most powerful legal role at the nation’s premier surveillance agency was made under pressure from the White House. A former Republican political operative, Ellis is a staunch Trump loyalist and played a leading role in the White House’s effort to stonewall the publication of former national security adviser John Bolton’s book. One former National Security Council official later accused Ellis and others of hijacking the review process for the book and making false claims to stop its publication while Trump attacked Bolton as a traitor and a liar.
In 2017, Ellis gained recognition for his involvement in the so-called “midnight run,” a late-night trip Nunes made to the White House to obtain intelligence documents that Nunes said bolstered Trump’s claim that the Obama administration illegally spied on his 2016 campaign. The Justice Department inspector general later investigated the matter and found no evidence to support it.
“If you don’t have the strict oversight required of the general counsel’s office at the intel agencies, or there’s a suspicion that the general counsel is kind of winking and nodding, you can lose support certainly on Capitol Hill but also generally with the American public,” Deitz said. “That’s why Ellis’ appointment is so bad. You need someone in that position who has enough juice and confidence to be able to say to a director — or someone higher up — when something is illegal or inappropriate. And the concern people have with Ellis is he’s not the type of guy who would maintain a strict firewall between himself and White House lawyers or policymakers.”
“With Ellis, Trump has a lawyer at the NSA who may just say, ‘Yeah, no problem,’ if, for example, the president makes a request to NSA about releasing documents to the White House or the public,” he added.
The White House and the NSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative and a frequent Trump critic, told Insider he was more alarmed by Trump’s metaphorical “decapitation” of government agencies than he was by the president refusing to pass the baton to Biden during the transition period.
“Even if you take one person out, for instance the head of the CIA, there’s an entire institution carrying on, but there are decisions that need to be made, processes that would come to a stop or not work that well without that leader,” he said. “In both a proactive and reactive sense, there are many things, including within the intelligence community, that could be significantly delayed even with an acting leader there to replace the person who’s been fired, no question.”
“If the quarterback disappears, you can still run an offense, but how well you’re going to do it is questionable,” he said.
‘If Donald Trump wants to make some really atrocious choices on his way out, he can probably do more damage that way’
One former senior Justice Department official, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss their views, told Business Insider that “in terms of damage that can be wrought, if Donald Trump wants to make some really atrocious choices as president on his way out, he can probably do more damage that way than just blinding the incoming president.”
“He can make some terrible foreign policy choices. He can attempt to eliminate key folks in the government as he’s already done,” they said. “Plus, you’ve got a floating executive order that would try and convert civil servant roles to new Schedule F roles, which opens the door for them to be fired on political grounds.”
Amid Trump’s refusal to concede the election, Emily Murphy, the politically appointed head of the General Services Administration, has not formally recognized Biden as the president-elect, leaving his team without many of the tools necessary to ensure a smooth transfer of power.
The White House has also instructed senior government leaders not to have any contact with the Biden transition team until the GSA acknowledges his election. And Biden is not yet receiving the daily intelligence product that presidents and incoming presidents receive, known as the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB.
Current and former officials said that while it’s problematic for Trump to stymie Biden, the president-elect is uniquely prepared to handle a tumultuous transition because of his eight years as vice president and the fact that it’s only been a few years since he left office. Many members of his transition team similarly served in various roles within the US government until their departure when Trump took office in 2017.
“With the Biden administration in particular, because he has not been out of government for very long, his personal knowledge of the interagency process — the way in which information relating to national security is collected, analyzed, and disseminated throughout various agencies and departments — is quite extensive,” said Heather Heldman, a managing partner at the advisory firm Luminae Group and a former State Department adviser. “President-elect Biden and those around him certainly know what questions to ask and of whom to ask them on day one. And that is a stabilizing factor.”
The former Justice Department official agreed, saying they were more troubled by how disorganized the Trump administration has been over the last four years, and especially in the past few weeks.
“This administration, in particular, has been so erratic with its foreign policy, and all of that might change again with last week’s decapitation strike at the Pentagon,” the former official said. “For Biden, in terms of at at least knowing what we ourselves are doing — not what the virus is doing, or what terrorists are doing, or what cyber actors or Russia are doing — we don’t even know, publicly, exactly where our forces are. And that basic information strikes me as lost now.”
‘These are opportunities for the bad guys’
Political instability in the US is a boon for foreign adversaries like Russia and China, particularly as it relates to the national defense.
NSA Director Paul Nakasone told reporters that foreign adversaries interfered less than they had before the 2018 midterm elections. But the New York Times reported that Russia, which meddled in the 2020 and 2016 elections in Trump’s favor, planned to assist the president this time by “exacerbating disputes around the results” after the election.
“A guy like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has very little money because Russia’s economy is in the tank. The only stuff Putin can do is cheap stuff, like using the internet to mess with our elections,” Deitz said. “It’s effective but it’s cheap. What’s happening now is another opening for Russia to muck around.”
China, meanwhile, has begun developing artificial archipelagos as part of an effort to claim sovereignty over the South China Sea. The US has pushed back with its Pacific fleet as a warning to China that the area is part of international waters.
But Trump’s refusal to concede the election, as well as the turmoil at the Pentagon following Trump’s decision to replace Defense Secretary Mark Esper with a loyalist, Chris Miller, is an opportunity for China to reassert dominion over the South China Sea.
Indeed, the perception of a lack of organization within the US government “can give the impression to nefarious foreign actors that there’s a point of vulnerability they can seek to exploit,” Heldman said. “I don’t think something of that nature would come to fruition, but it’s certainly a thought that must have crossed the minds of America’s adversaries.”
“There’s a piece of me that hopes our adversaries realize that whatever the leadership is, there are dedicated and talented FBI investigators and military service members and civil servants across the government who will detect misbehavior and form our response to it,” the former Justice Department official said.
“Do I wish this controversy didn’t exist? Yeah, absolutely,” she said. “That being said, is Joe Biden going to be significantly disadvantaged because he’s not getting the PDB today? I don’t think so, because he has a very talented team of national security advisers around him. Beyond that, that intelligence-sharing is going to continue, cooperation with our most strategic national security allies is going to continue, and the responsibilities of people who work in the US intelligence community or people who are in the military, those responsibilities are not going to change.”