Donald Trump has asked a New York billionaire to conduct a review of U.S. intelligence agencies and other aspects of the federal government, current and former officials told NBC News.
Trump's expected appointment of Steve Feinberg, co-founder and chief executive of Cerberus Capital Management, is causing consternation inside the intelligence agencies, former senior intelligence officials say.
A senior administration official says Feinberg still needs to be cleared by the Office of Government Ethics, which is complicated because Cerberus owns many different companies, some of which have financial relationships with the U.S. government.
But there were indications Thursday that Trump's plans could be changing.
Current and former intelligence officials told NBC News that Trump's pick to be director of national intelligence, Sen. Dan Coats of Indiana, was annoyed that the news of Feinberg's role was breaking before Coats's Senate confirmation, expected next week.
Asked at a White House news conference if Feinberg would conduct an intelligence review, Trump said, "I think that we are going to be able to straighten it out very easily on its own."
Trump called Feinberg "a very talented man, very successful man," and said, "he's offered his services and you know, it's something we may take advantage of."
One former official, who speaks regularly to current senior officials, called Feinberg's expected role an "extra-constitutional process," and said Trump believes the intelligence community "needs to be threshed and cleaned and bent to the will of the executive."
At the same time, he said, there is certainly a need to reimagine aspects of the U.S. intelligence apparatus.
"You would not build the IC the way it is today if you had a clean sheet of paper."
In an interview with NBC News, Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force general who ran the CIA and National Security Agency, agreed. But he added that "a major restructuring is not what's called for here."
If Feinberg's task "is to reduce the influence of the DNI, if it's designed to undercut what has so far been contrary views, then that is extremely troubling," another former senior intelligence official said.
After attacking the intelligence agencies during the campaign over their finding that Russia tried to help elect him, Trump sought to patch up the relationship, praising the spies in a trip to the CIA. But in recent days he has pointed a finger again over the scandal that engulfed his national security adviser, Mike Flynn.
"The NSA and the FBI should not interfere in our politics," he tweeted Wednesday. In another tweet, he asserted that "information is being illegally given (to newspapers) by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?) Just like Russia."
Feinberg, 56, a major Republican donor, is worth $1.27 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Cerberus employs former Treasury Secretary John Snow and former Vice President Dan Quayle, both Republicans.
Feinberg donated $200,000 in 2015 to Jeb Bush's "Right to Rise" super PAC. In 2016, he gave nearly $1.5 million to a pro-Trump group, Rebuilding America Now," according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan group that tracks political donations.
Feinberg and Cerberus came under scrutiny in 2012, when a mentally disturbed man shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, using a Bushmaster rifle made by Freedom Group Inc., a company owned by Cerberus.
After complaints by investors, Feinberg tried to sell Freedom Group, but could not fetch the $1 billion price tag he sought, according to news reports. Instead, Feinberg came up with a way that individual Cerberus fund investors could sell their stakes in Freedom Group. Cerberus continues to own the arms maker.
Cerberus also owns DynCorp, which is a major national security contractor with the U.S. government, charging billions for overseas military and police training, among other things.