May 13, 2020 at 1:13 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Trump’s love affair with Ric Grenell
President Donald Trump has a good relationship with acting DNI Richard Grenell. (Photo via Instagram)

Aides to President Trump fall in and out of favor depending on various factors — including whether they bring positive headlines for the administration. One official now riding high is Richard Grenell.

Despite the anti-LGBTQ reputation Trump has built over the course of his presidency, he praised the openly gay Grenell — who now wears two hats as U.S. ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence — during an interview last week on “Fox & Friends.”

“Ric Grenell is doing a fantastic job, an absolutely fantastic job as our No. 1 person on intelligence,” Trump said. “He has been incredible.”

Trump had a frostier relationship with Grenell’s predecessors — including Dan Coats, who publicly criticized Trump after he downplayed Russian interference in the 2016 election during a joint news conference with Vladimir Putin — a contrast Trump referenced in his praise for Grenell.

“It’s too bad the people that were sitting before him — I won’t use names — didn’t do anything,” Trump said. “They didn’t do a thing. It was like they just sat there in the office. ‘Hello, goodbye.’ That would be a meeting. But Ric Grenell is doing a fantastic job, and this country owes a lot to him.”

Much of Trump’s praise was based on Grenell’s recent decision as head of intelligence to make public the transcripts of the closed-door hearing before House Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian interference in the 2016 election.

In conservative circles, it was a big deal. In the aftermath of the Mueller report finding no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, the transcripts depict Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) in an unfavorable light, aggressively going after Trump administration officials, who all denied collusion with Russia before the committee.

That’s a different story than the other side tells of a fearless Schiff defying the wrath of Trump and his supporters by getting to the truth about the 2016 election and holding the administration accountable.

Conservatives also seized on a quote from former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates indicating President Obama was aware of the FBI’s interview with Michael Flynn, which they say is evidence of wrongdoing. Trump accused Obama of committing the “biggest political crime in American history,” although Trump himself has been unable to articulate any particular crime Obama allegedly committed.

Grenell is backing up Trump. On Tuesday, ABC News reported Grenell has declassified and delivered to the Justice Department a list of former Obama administration officials who were allegedly involved “in the so-called ‘unmasking’ of former national security adviser Michael Flynn in his conversations with the former Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.”

In a significant way, Grenell is having an influence on the Trump administration’s communications strategy as the administration is assailed for its response to COVID-19 and Trump vies for re-election. That’s coming from a person who’s a member of the LGBTQ community.

Grenell came into the position of acting director of national intelligence in February, while retaining his job as U.S. ambassador to Germany.

Trump never sought Senate confirmation for Grenell as director of national intelligence and kept him in an “acting” role. Even top Republicans, such as Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), have cautioned he lacks the requisite experience for the job. Grenell has said his role is temporary and he expects to step down after the Senate confirms John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence.

But the relationship between Trump and Grenell goes back further than his appointment as acting director of national intelligence. A Trump loyalist in practice and policy, Grenell as ambassador to Germany publicly browbeat U.S. allies to spend more on defense and meet their NATO obligations to spend at least two percent of GDP on the military.

The spending has markedly increased. Starting in 2021, Germany will increase its contribution to the NATO budget by $36 million to match the U.S. contribution, according to foreign press reports.

Previously, Grenell’s name was floated for potential appointments by Trump to high-level roles, including national security adviser and secretary of state. A look at Grenell’s Instagram account reveals images of Trump as well as a picture of him with Trump during a recent trip to Berlin.

One gay D.C.-based national security expert, who has known Grenell for years and spoke on condition of anonymity for greater candor, said the consensus is the relationship between Trump and Grenell is good and the two have “talked tons” since Grenell took on the new role.

“The combination of Ric just lowering the decibel level on Biden/Ukraine and other matters and just keeping a low profile for most part gave Trump some cover on his back side while dealing with the COVID crisis,” the expert said.

Grenell’s influence can be seen early on after his appointment as acting director of national intelligence. Shortly after media reports emerged Russia is once again seeking to meddle in the 2016 election to support Trump, Trump indicated Joseph Maguire would step down from his role as director of intelligence and Grenell would assume the role. Reports subsequently emerged that the depiction of Russia’s meddling in the 2020 election was overblown.

In his new job, Grenell has tangled with Schiff, who has voiced objections to Grenell’s restructuring of intelligence agencies. In a recent letter, Schiff said he was making changes without congressional consent “in a manner that undermines critical intelligence functions.” Grenell took Schiff to task on Twitter for alerting the media to the letter before transmitting it (such practice is common for House members).

One recent change Grenell has made is the creation of an intelligence community “cyber executive,” which will oversee four consolidated, previously separate ODNI organizations focused on cybersecurity. Other changes are closing out the directorate of national security partnerships and establishing a DNI adviser for military affairs. Grenell on Twitter said “more changes to come” and “reforms should have been done before I arrived.”

Much like Trump, Grenell also has a combative relationship with the media — and the LGBTQ media is no exception. Grenell didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article, and his influence seems so extensive that neither did gay conservatives in his circles. Even Log Cabin Republicans, where Grenell formerly served as a board member, declined to comment for this article.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere, however, confirmed to the Washington Blade via email Trump’s relationship with Grenell is strong.

“As the president has said before, he and Ambassador Grenell have a good relationship built on mutual trust – a trust that has only grown as the ambassador has delivered results,” Deere said. “The president has enormous confidence in Ambassador Grenell to tackle any challenge put in front of him, including keeping the American people safe as the acting DNI, and is grateful for his service to the administration and the American people.”

Faced with accusations the Trump administration is anti-LGBTQ, Republicans have pointed to the appointment of Grenell as evidence to the contrary. After all, as a Cabinet member, even though he’s serving in an acting capacity, Grenell is arguably the highest-ranking openly gay presidential appointee in U.S. history.

Democrats have responded that one openly gay appointment does not a pro-LGBTQ administration make, especially compared to the transgender military ban, judicial confirmations with histories of anti-LGBTQ views, religious freedom carve-outs to LGBTQ regulations and arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that LGBTQ people don’t have non-discrimination protections under federal law.

Ned Price, a gay appointee to the National Security Council in the Obama White House and now director of policy and communications for National Security Action, had a decidedly different take on Grenell than Trump.

“The most generous thing I can say is that Grenell is doing the job Trump set out for him, but that’s not the job of acting DNI,” Price said. “What Trump wanted was a loyalist atop the intelligence community who could do his bidding rather than the nation’s bidding. In this case, that includes weaponizing national security information — as with the declassification of the Flynn-related records — for Trump to use for his own political ends as well as keeping a lid on intelligence assessments that portray the president and his foreign policy in an unfavorable light.”

But Grenell’s mark on LGBTQ rights isn’t limited to being an openly gay presidential appointee. As ambassador to Germany, Grenell has spearheaded a global initiative to decriminalize homosexuality in the more than 70 countries where it remains illegal. Trump himself brought up the initiative, even explicitly mentioning the LGBTQ community, during an address last year before the United Nations.

Critics have said the initiative has achieved little or nothing since Grenell launched it last year, but Grenell appears to have brought the project with him to his role as acting director of national intelligence. Last week, Grenell tweeted he spoke with an influential Lebanese Shiite leader who’s close to coming out publicly in support of Lebanon decriminalizing homosexuality.

As reported by the New York Times, Grenell has also launched an intelligence community working group to identify ideas to advance the project, which could include sharing less intelligence with countries that still have anti-gay laws. At the same time, Grenell has distributed a memo declaring his time as director is short, but he expects intelligence agencies to adopt policies prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination and harassment.

Mark Bromley, chair of the international LGBTQ group Council for Global Equality, was skeptical about the change reportedly under consideration with Grenell, crediting the Obama administration for being first to champion LGBTQ human rights across the globe.

“It’s very hard to believe that the U.S. would curb its intelligence sharing efforts with repressive countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt over their virulently anti-LGBTI policies,” Bromley said. “I just don’t believe this story makes a lot of sense. But we appreciate that our foreign affairs agencies continue to promote decriminalization as a strategic U.S. foreign policy objective as first outlined in President Obama’s groundbreaking 2011 Presidential Directive.”

One question remains: When Ratcliffe is confirmed as director of national intelligence, what role will Grenell assume? He has indicated he would step down from the administration in any capacity once as new director is in the job.

The White House is keeping quiet about any new role. Deere said he “won’t get ahead of any announcements on that.”

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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