WASHINGTON – For a diplomat, Richard Grenell has a remarkable record of being undiplomatic.
Facing rejection for a job a few years back at a global bank, he responded with a series of cutting e-mail denunciations. Unhappy working as a foreign policy spokesman for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, he exited in a wave of recriminations.
His confrontational style touches such raw nerves that one top Obama administration official, Susan Rice, recently called him “one of the most nasty, dishonest people I’ve ever encountered,” and some German politicians demanded that he be recalled from his post as U.S. ambassador to Berlin. His career was built on media relations, but his Twitter attacks on journalists have led some to mute him or skip his briefings.
Bombastic perseverance and ostentatious attention-seeking may be problematic traits for some employers, but they have helped fuel Grenell’s rapid rise under President Donald Trump.
In 2017, the president nominated him to be ambassador to Germany, a perch that Grenell has used to spread his brand of combative conservatism and emerge as an outspoken Trump loyalist. Last month, the president made Grenell the most powerful spymaster on Earth, naming him the acting director of national intelligence for the United States — the least-experienced, most overtly political person ever to occupy the post, which oversees the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and 15 other departments.
On Friday, Trump announced that he would nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, as his permanent choice for the job, re-selecting someone Senate Republicans said last summer was unqualified. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Grenell’s tenure as acting director can extend past the original legal deadline of March 11 as Ratcliffe’s nomination moves forward. If the Senate blocks Ratcliffe’s nomination, Grenell’s tenure could be further extended.
Grenell initially said he would return to Berlin and continue as ambassador after a permanent director is confirmed. But this week he told the conservative Daily Wire that he intends to resign from his post as ambassador once Ratcliffe is confirmed, an outcome that is far from certain.
Grenell’s ascension has been applauded by allies who see him as the embodiment of Trump’s efforts to shake up European diplomacy and cut through what the president sees as “deep state” opposition to his “America First” agenda.
But his elevation to overseeing U.S. intelligence has increased scrutiny of his private-sector work.
Grenell claimed on a now-defunct website that he had worked with clients based in China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Kazakhstan and Somalia, among other places. Democrats are now raising questions about whether he was fully forthcoming in his financial disclosure statements and whether some of his work ran afoul of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Tax filings show that Grenell’s company was paid $103,750 in 2016 by a nonprofit group called the Magyar Foundation of North America, which was funded mostly by the far-right Hungarian government of Orban. The payments from the foundation, which were first reported by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, were not listed on Grenell’s disclosure form.