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Trump Adviser Pushes Utah Congressman for Top Intelligence Post

The New York Times logo The New York Times 5 days ago Julian E. Barnes, Maggie Haberman and Nicholas Fandos
Chris Stewart wearing a suit and tie sitting at a table: Representative Chris Stewart, Republican of Utah, is said to be a contender for the nomination for director of national intelligence. © Samuel Corum for The New York Times Representative Chris Stewart, Republican of Utah, is said to be a contender for the nomination for director of national intelligence.

WASHINGTON — A Utah congressman has emerged as a top contender to be the next director of national intelligence in the weeks before the acting intelligence chief must by law give up the post, people briefed on the matter said on Tuesday.

President Trump’s national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, is pushing him to nominate Representative Chris Stewart, Republican of Utah and a member of the House Intelligence Committee, for the job, the people said. Current and former officials cautioned that the discussions were fluid.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Stewart did not comment.

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Joseph Maguire, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has filled in as the acting director of national intelligence since Dan Coats resigned in August. But under current law limiting the duration of postings for acting cabinet-level officials, Mr. Maguire must step down next month.

Mr. Trump has not nominated a permanent replacement for Mr. Coats since his early pick, Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, withdrew in August after questions about whether he exaggerated his résumé.

Mr. Stewart, like other Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, vigorously defended Mr. Trump during impeachment hearings in the fall that focused on the president’s pressure campaign on Ukraine. And he has been sharply critical of the handling by the Justice Department and F.B.I. of an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

“They want to take away my vote and throw it in the trash,” Mr. Stewart said of Democrats just before the impeachment vote in the House. “They want to take away my president and delegitimize him so he cannot be re-elected.”

Mr. Stewart, 59, has long been interested in the post of intelligence chief, people close to him said. He is well-liked by congressional Republicans and is thought to enjoy support from Senate Republicans, who would confirm him if he is nominated.

But Democrats are likely to balk at the selection of a House lawmaker with such a political track record. Senate Republicans could have the votes to approve on their own a nominee like Mr. Stewart, but some have said they want to see a nominee with bipartisan support. Senator Richard Burr, Republican of North Carolina, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, was cool to Mr. Ratcliffe’s nomination and is likely to influence the White House’s ultimate choice.

The clock is ticking on a decision. Mr. Maguire cannot serve past March 11 under federal law. Before then, the administration must have a director nominated and confirmed or be forced to find a new acting director.

The White House could still decide to nominate Mr. Maguire, according to the current and former officials. Mr. Maguire, a retired Navy admiral, has support within the administration. His counterterrorism expertise is also considered an asset to Mr. Trump, who has been focused on strikes against terrorist leaders.

What is not clear, however, is whether the president sees Mr. Maguire’s role in handling the anonymous whistle-blower complaint about Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine that helped prompt the impeachment inquiry as an asset or a liability.

Mr. Maguire followed the advice of administration lawyers and initially blocked the complaint from being sent to Congress, drawing the ire of Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

But soon after, he engineered an agreement to provide the complaint to Congress. That move, along with the release of the reconstructed transcript of Mr. Trump’s call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, helped prompt the impeachment inquiry.

Mr. Trump has not publicly criticized Mr. Maguire, and the acting director was not among the officials dismissed in the immediate aftermath of the president’s acquittal by the Senate. He has continued to brief the president and participate in decision-making such as the move to kill the Iranian general Qassim Suleimani in an airstrike last month.

If Mr. Maguire were nominated for the permanent post, he would have to step down as the acting secretary while the Senate considered his nomination. That could take weeks or, like Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper’s nomination, be completed in a few days.

While Mr. Ratcliffe’s nomination quickly raised questions, many congressional officials view Mr. Stewart as a stronger candidate.

A retired Air Force officer and a prolific novelist, Mr. Stewart has served longer on the Intelligence Committee than Mr. Ratcliffe has. He also has a good reputation inside the intelligence agencies as a committee member who comes prepared to briefings and asks serious, well-informed questions.

However, it is not clear if he would be willing to leave Congress to take the job. And if he did, he might not be willing to resign and give up his seat early. Mr. Stewart faces both a primary challenge and a Democratic opponent if he decides to run again in his Utah district.

While Mr. Stewart was a stalwart defender of the president during the impeachment proceedings, he was critical of Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign. In a speech in Utah in 2016, Mr. Stewart compared Mr. Trump to Benito Mussolini, the fascist former leader of Italy, and said he did not represent “Republican ideals.”

Talk about Mr. Stewart has intensified as the deadline approaches for Mr. Maguire to stop serving as an acting director.

Should Mr. Trump and his adviser not select Mr. Stewart, Mr. Maguire or someone else for the job, they will need to find another acting director. Under current law, they must choose a senior civil servant or one of the two officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

The two Senate-confirmed officials were, however, intimately involved in the whistle-blower case. Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the intelligence community, did the initial investigation and tried to send his report to Congress, prompting Mr. Trump to privately contemplate firing him.

Jason Klitenic, the general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, made the legal recommendation that Mr. Atkinson’s report on the whistle-blower could not be sent to Congress. Appointing him to the acting job would prompt sharp questions by congressional Democrats.

The nomination of a permanent director or appointment of a new acting director has complicated negotiations over public testimony by the intelligence chief.

Testimony last year by Mr. Coats and Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, was widely seen as contradicting Mr. Trump’s views of Iran, North Korea and other countries. The president responded with a series of Twitter posts saying the intelligence chiefs should “go back to school.”

Mr. Maguire’s staff originally tried to make the testimony this year behind closed doors, an offer rebuffed by members of Congress. Mr. Schiff then requested a hearing for Wednesday. While that hearing will not take place, Congress and the administration continue to discuss a date for one in the future.

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