WASHINGTON – It was rare moment of levity during a tense House committee hearing.
Joseph Maguire told lawmakers last week he was laboring to navigate his first days on the job as acting director of National Intelligence, only to be confronted by an explosive whistleblower complaint that has since launched perhaps the greatest threat to Donald Trump’s presidency.
“I was still using Garmin to get to work,” Maguire said, referring to his vehicle’s GPS system.
While lawmakers were focused on how Maguire handled the whistleblower’s complaint, the exchange also underscored an unsettling reality of the Trump administration: More top government officials are learning on the job than in past administrations.
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The Trump administration has churned through more senior executives in less than three years than each of the previous five presidents did during their entire first terms, according to an examination by Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. That includes the August departure of Maguire’s immediate predecessor, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.
A separate review by the nonpartisan White House Transition Project confirmed the volatility. Nearly 80% of aides hired as assistants to the president during the first year of the Trump presidency have left those positions.
For instance, Trump is on his third chief of staff. Mick Mulvaney, the interim chief, remains the director of the Office of Management and Budget.
“When people leave these jobs, they often take three or four people with them, resulting in an absence of any institutional memory,” Tenpas said. “Personal relationships in these jobs are the coin of the realm.”
“Frankly,” she said, “I’m surprised that there haven’t been more of these concrete examples of the risks posed by inexperience.”
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There’s been so much turnover under Trump that Tenpas has added a new category to track posts that have been vacated several times.
One of them is national security adviser. Last month, Robert O’Brien became the fourth person to hold that post since Trump took office.
Democrats: Maguire’s inexperience played into his handling of complaint
During Maguire’s Sept. 26 testimony, references to his inexperience overseeing the nation’s far-flung intelligence apparatus lingered like a target for House Intelligence Committee interrogators.
Democrats hammered him for initially blocking congressional access to the complaint that detailed Trump’s request that Ukraine open an investigation into Democratic rival Joe Biden.
“You’re looking at that complaint that in the second paragraph alleges serious wrongdoing by the president of the United States, and the first thing you do is go to the president’s men at the White House … and say, ‘Should I give it to Congress?’ ” Rep. Sean Maloney, D-N.Y., asked Maguire.
And knowing that Attorney General William Barr’s name was invoked during Trump’s July 25 call with the Ukrainian president, Democrats asked, why did the interim spy chief seek the guidance of Barr’s Justice Department?
The agency ruled the complaint did not meet the “urgent” standard necessary for Congress to see it, prompting a conflict between Congress and the Trump administration.
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Key intelligence posts were vacant before Maguire arrived
McGuire, the former director of the National Counterterrorism Center and a Navy SEAL, arrived at his new post not only as Coats was departing but as Susan Gordon, the principal deputy director of National Intelligence, also was leaving.
Coats resigned after clashing with Trump over Russia and North Korea. Gordon announced her departure around the time the White House signaled that she would not take over the office.
“Pushing out two dedicated public servants in as many weeks…comes at the expense of our national security,” Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., said at the time.
Some of Warner’s concerns were on display last week as lawmakers questioned how he dealt with the whistleblower’s complaint.
The extraordinary document, now at the root of an impeachment inquiry against the president, asserts that Trump sought to “use the power of his office” to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election.
Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to initiate an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Neither the former vice president nor his son have been accused of any wrongdoing by the Ukrainian government.
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Panetta: ‘No depth’ in executive branch
The questions in the hearing, while crucial to reconciling the maelstrom now engulfing the White House, also highlighted the learning curve that met Maguire on his first day of work.
“Sir, I have no questions about your character; I’ve read your bio,” Maloney, the New York congressman, said. “I have some questions about your decisions and the judgment in those decisions. See any conflicts there?”
Maguire defended how he handled the complaint, claiming he sought legal advice in part because he was concerned some of the content was covered by executive privilege that prevented release.
“I have a lot of leadership experience, I do,” Maguire told Maloney, but he acknowledged he was new to the job. “Because of the magnitude of this decision, I – as a Naval officer for years – just thought it would be prudent” to seek legal advice.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, said Democrats’ criticisms were akin to falsely accusing the director of “committing a crime” by not immediately transmitting the complaint to Congress.
Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff, defense secretary and CIA director in Democrat administrations, said Maguire’s performance underscored a troubling lack of experience throughout the administration.
“There is no depth in these agencies and departments,” said Panetta, who also served as a California congressman. “The way it is supposed to work is that you hire people not just for the top positions, but in supporting posts so that you get the job done and create depth so that you are not operating by the seat of your pants.”
Panetta claimed Maguire could have offered a more robust defense of the whistleblower and “should not have hesitated” before sending the complaint to Congress. (The complaint was ultimately transmitted when the White House released a summary of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president.)
“If you don’t create that depth, you are lost,” Panetta said. “I think (Maguire) is a guy who served a long time in the military and served well. But I think he was out of his depth.”
Trump: Interim staff provides flexibility
Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, said the constant churning of staff is a reflection of the president.
“The president has said that he doesn’t think of it as chaos, he sees it as a form of energy,” Kumar said. Earlier this year, Trump said that he preferred having interim executives in government because it provides more flexibility.
“But when you don’t have a settled structure,” Kumar said, “you can’t plan to deal with major issues, including a major issue that now confronts this administration: impeachment.”
Maguire’s appearance before the House panel effectively kicked off the public work of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
“You had a heck of first week, didn’t you, sir?” Maloney asked the acting spy chief.
“Had that much going for me, sir,” Maguire responded, while continuing to defend his work.
“I also want to say, sir, my life would have been a heck of a lot simpler without becoming the most famous man in the United States.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine whistleblower case highlights turnover in Trump administration