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Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images
Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.
Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.
In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.
The plan stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.
The ploy to rattle Haspel and perhaps intentionally trigger her resignation unfolded in a lurching and incompetent way, like a bad Monty Python skit, on one chaotic day in early December.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows was ordered to fire — and then immediately unfire — the CIA's Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop.
In his place, Trump planned to install Kash Patel — a former top Intelligence Committee staffer to Nunes who had served on Trump's National Security Council but had no agency experience. In Trump's mind, this could potentially lead to Patel running the agency without needing to get Senate confirmation.
Trump had spent his last year in office ruminating over Haspel. Some of Trump's hardcore allies, including Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, had been publicly raising doubts in his mind about her. He grew to distrust her and instead wanted a loyal ally at the top of the CIA.
She wasn't the only national security official the president wanted out.
Six days after the election, he had fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He replaced Esper with counterterrorism chief Chris Miller — and then stunned long-time national security hands by installing Patel as Miller's chief of staff. Patel had no military experience and was widely seen as a political mercenary bent on punishing the president's perceived "deep state" foes.
But Trump told confidants he had bigger plans for Patel: He'd replace long-time CIA veteran Bishop with Patel, and if Haspel quit in protest, then Patel or another loyalist could lead the CIA.
Patel had found favor with Trump when he played a central role in Republican efforts to counterprogram special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. Patel was the key author of a memo in which Nunes accused the Justice Department and the FBI of abusing surveillance laws as part of a politically motivated effort to take down Trump. An inspector general later validated some of the Republican criticisms of the DOJ's process.
Trump had also become convinced that there were still all kinds of classified documents lying around, inside the CIA, that would harm his enemies — former President Obama, Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director John Brennan and others. He regarded Patel as somebody he could trust to do whatever he asked without challenging, slow-walking, questioning his judgment, or asking too many annoying questions.
Patel pushed back on this reporting in a text message to Axios in which he said such a view of him was a "total lie about how I behave with the president" and "completely" mischaracterized his "ability." He declined to comment on the president’s early December plan.
Trump had quickly brought Patel into his inner circle, trusting him with sensitive assignments, which included dispatching him to Damascus last year for secret hostage talks with the Assad regime.
Patel was traveling in Asia with acting Defense Secretary Miller when Trump abruptly summoned him back to Washington on Dec. 8. The Pentagon declined at the time to answer questions on why Patel was called back.
Given the tensions running through the building after Trump had replaced top officials with loyalists, it set off feverish speculation among senior Pentagon staff.
Patel had to link through multiple commercial flights to get back in a hurry. Meanwhile, Trump instructed Meadows to tell CIA Director Haspel he was firing Deputy Director Bishop and replacing him with Patel. Trump planned to name Patel deputy director of the CIA on Dec. 11. By that day, a Friday, the paperwork had already been drafted to formalize Patel's appointment.
As soon as Cipollone learned of this, he spoke with the president and argued against installing Patel in that powerful position.
That same day, Haspel decided for the first time in weeks to attend the president's daily intelligence briefing. Reports she was on the ropes had been swirling for weeks and she'd been steering clear of the West Wing — a COVID-19 hot zone. During the briefing that day, Haspel deftly reminded Trump of what had initially impressed him about her: As Trump often put it, she was tough and good at killing terrorists.
After the briefing ended and Haspel had left the room, Trump asked a small group of his senior aides what they thought about her.
Pence delivered a full-throated defense of Haspel, calling the CIA director a patriot, praising her job performance, and trying to reassure Trump that she had his back. Cipollone had also repeatedly defended Haspel to the president.
Trump abruptly switched course, deciding to call off the plan to install Patel. But there was one glitch: Just down the hall in the chief of staff's office, Meadows had already told Haspel that Patel would be taking Bishop's job.
Haspel responded with the flinty aggression she was renowned for. She said she wouldn't stand for it, and that she would resign before allowing Patel to assume a position as her deputy. Meadows had presented it as a fait accompli, but this was not a decision Haspel would take lying down. Now that Trump had changed his mind, Meadows had to swallow his pride and reverse the order.
Had Pence and Cipollone not gone to bat for Haspel with such vigor — and had Haspel skipped the daily briefing that day — Patel likely would have become the CIA's deputy director or chief.
Instead, Trump on Jan. 4 awarded loyalist Nunes the Medal of Freedom — the nation's highest civilian honor and the same recognition President Reagan once bestowed on Mother Teresa.
Meanwhile, Michael Ellis, another loyalist and former Nunes aide who'd worked on the National Security Council, was placed in a powerful new post — general counsel of the National Security Agency — with just three days left in Trump's presidency. The job's civil service designation, the New York Times noted, meant that while the incoming Biden administration could exile him, it could be more difficult to remove him altogether.
Even after Pence and Cipollone killed the "Kash Patel for CIA" dream, it lived on among outside allies of the president, including Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow and a prominent election-overturning conspiracy theorist. Patel told Axios: “I do want to say on the record that I have never met, spoken to, seen, texted, or communicated with Mike Lindell."
On Jan. 15, Trump's final Friday at the White House, Lindell visited Trump in the Oval Office.
Washington Post photographer Jabin Botsford caught a picture of Lindell’s notes before he entered the West Wing. Among the pillow entrepreneur's prescriptions for the president was this eye-catching line: "Move Kash Patel to CIA Acting."
🎧 Listen to Jonathan Swan on Axios' new investigative podcast series, called "How it happened: Trump's last stand."
Read the rest of the "Off the Rails" episodes here. This episode is based on a scoop Jonathan published on Friday. Comments from Patel in response to the initial story have been added.
About this series: Our reporting is based on interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as eyewitnesses and people close to the president. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials to whom quotes and actions have been attributed by others were provided the opportunity to confirm, deny or respond to reporting elements prior to publication.
"Off the rails" is reported by White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with writing, reporting and research assistance by Zach Basu. It was edited by Margaret Talev and Mike Allen and copy edited by Eileen O'Reilly. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo, Aïda Amer and Eniola Odetunde.