WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pushed aside his acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, because he was angry about a briefing to lawmakers that said Russia is interfering in the 2020 election to aid his re-election, current and former intelligence officials briefed on the matter told NBC News.
At issue was an election briefing to House members last week by Shelby Pierson, the DNI's election security czar. The news was first reported by The New York Times.
The fast-moving developments have caused serious concern among intelligence officials.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence "is nearing a meltdown," one former official said after news broke about Maguire being forced out over the Russia briefing.
Current and former officials previously confirmed to NBC News that Maguire, who was under consideration to be permanent DNI, will not get that job and will soon leave his post.
The top lieutenant at the ODNI, CIA officer Andrew Hallman, is also leaving, a former official said, a departure that "is very distressing to intelligence professionals."
"It is clear that the recent decisions by the president have caused a lot of consternation in the intelligence community," another former official said. "I'm not aware of any kind of planned response, but a lot of people are concerned about the role of the oversight committees going forward in this situation."
Maguire was due to leave by March 12 but the election briefing precipitated his departure.
Trump announced that he would name Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, to the post, but on Thursday night, officials said the president would put forward a different name within days to fill the job permanently.
Last Thursday, Pierson gave a classified briefing to the House Intelligence Committee on 2020 election security. Current and former intelligence officials said she told lawmakers that Russia had exhibited a preference for Trump, and was seeking to interfere in the 2020 election to help the president.
One current official familiar with the matter told NBC News that Pierson overstated the extent to which there is intelligence showing a Russian preference for Trump. When lawmakers from both parties asked for examples, she could not provide any, this official said, adding that the Russian priority is sowing chaos, not electing any particular candidate.
A second current official said Democrats at the briefing asked pointed questions designed to make the intelligence look as damaging to Trump as possible, while Republicans questioned whether the Russians would prefer Trump.
A spokeswoman for Pierson declined to comment.
Regardless of what the intelligence shows, what happened after the briefing has deeply unsettled many intelligence officials, current and former officials tell NBC News.
The next day, Trump erupted at Maguire in the Oval Office, demanding to know why lawmakers were briefed on the Russia intelligence, current and former officials said, adding that Trump was concerned the Democrats would use the information against him.
Trump's anger over the briefing led him to push Maguire out, current and former officials told NBC News.
The episode has raised the specter that Trump is punishing intelligence officials for providing accurate intelligence to members of Congress who are cleared to receive it.
Pierson, a veteran intelligence official, is coordinating the intelligence gathering — and response — to foreign election threats.
While the U.S. government is working to secure the 2020 election from hackers and disinformation, Trump has avoided publicly commenting or holding meetings about the subject because he believes the issue reflects badly on his 2016 victory in an election beset by Russian interference, officials have told NBC News.