WASHINGTON — The White House is planning to block Sue Gordon, the nation’s No. 2 intelligence official, from rising to the role of acting director of national intelligence when Dan Coats steps down this month, according to people familiar with the Trump administration’s plans.
The decision to circumvent Ms. Gordon, who has served as the principal deputy director in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is likely to upset Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. They have expressed doubts about Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, who is President Trump’s choice to be the next Senate-confirmed leader of the agency.
Mr. Trump did not allow Ms. Gordon to deliver a recent intelligence briefing, according to a person familiar with the matter. Opposition in the White House to letting her serve as acting director has raised the question of whether she will be ousted as part of a leadership shuffle at the intelligence director’s office that will be more to Mr. Trump’s liking.
A federal statute says that if the position of director of national intelligence becomes vacant, the deputy director — currently Ms. Gordon — shall serve as acting director.
But there appears to be a loophole: The law gives the White House much more flexibility in choosing who to appoint as the acting deputy if the No. 2 position is vacant, said Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who specializes in national-security legal issues.
Ms. Gordon will retire if told by the White House that Mr. Trump wants someone else in the deputy’s role who could then rise to fill the vacancy created when Mr. Coats departs, according to officials.
Mr. Ratcliffe, an outspoken supporter of Mr. Trump, has thin national security experience relevant to overseeing the work of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies. The scrutiny that he is now receiving also brought to light that he exaggerated his résumé when running for office.
Ms. Gordon, who has served more than 30 years in intelligence posts at the C.I.A. and other agencies, has not been officially informed by the White House that Mr. Trump intends to name someone else to oversee the intelligence agency until the Senate confirms a new director of national intelligence, officials said.
But the White House requested this week that the office provide a list of senior officials who worked for the agency, according to a senior administration official — a move that was interpreted as another sign that it is looking beyond her for people who could be temporarily installed in the top position.
When Mr. Trump posted tweets Sunday announcing that Mr. Coats would step down on Aug. 15 and that he intended to nominate Mr. Ratcliffe, the president hinted that Ms. Gordon might not automatically become the acting director in the interim, saying an acting director would be named soon.
Those tweets prompted concern on Capitol Hill that Mr. Trump would circumvent Ms. Gordon. The next day, Senator Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, who leads the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressly referred to the fact that he looked forward to working with Ms. Gordon, calling her “a trusted partner.”
On Thursday, Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, who is the committee’s vice chairman, said the law was “pretty clear” that the acting role goes to the deputy when the director of national intelligence leaves. “This is something that’s very bipartisan,” Mr. Warner said. “Every member of the intelligence committee has enormous respect for Sue Gordon.”
Ms. Gordon’s experience is not necessarily a point in her favor for the White House, where Mr. Trump and his allies view the permanent bureaucracy of national security professionals with suspicion as a so-called deep state that may be out to get him.
Mr. Trump and House Republicans have made clear that they believe a broad reorganization of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is needed. Administration officials and House Republicans also have said they would like someone at the agency who will work well with Attorney General William P. Barr, who has ordered a review of the intelligence agencies’ support for the F.B.I. as the bureau sought to understand Moscow’s covert efforts to tilt the 2016 election, including any links to the Trump campaign.
There appears little chance that the Senate, which is currently gone for its summer recess, will swiftly confirm Mr. Ratcliffe, in light of the bipartisan skepticism about his qualifications and questions about the honesty of his résumé.
The White House has bypassed the legally prescribed usual order of succession to appoint acting officials at several agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security. It has obtained the approval of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to not follow succession statutes by instead invoking the complex Federal Vacancies Reform Act.
Under the Vacancies Reform Act, a president may pick someone other than a No. 2 official to serve as acting head of an agency so long as that appointee is either a sufficiently senior official at the same agency or is currently serving in a Senate-confirmed position in the broader executive branch.
Mr. Chesney noted that certain language in the 2004 law that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is written more restrictively and in a way that he said strongly indicates Congress did not intend for the Vacancies Reform Act to be available for filling the position of director.
However, he also flagged a complexity — one that resonates with the White House’s request for a list of senior officials at the office. According to the person familiar with internal thinking, the White House specifically wanted a list of “cadre” officials, meaning employees who work directly for the director’s office rather than employees of other agencies who are merely on a temporary assignment.
An alternative, less obvious interpretation of the law, Mr. Chesney said, could be that a president may use the Vacancies Reform Act to install some senior agency official other than the No. 2 as acting director, so long as that appointee worked directly for the office and was not a detailee.
He said that while this maneuver would require what he portrayed as a dubious interpretation of the law, it could create a way for what he viewed as a “happy result” — letting Ms. Gordon remain in place. The broader danger, he said, is that if the White House moves to bring in outsiders in both the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, there would be no one atop the intelligence community who had “the benefit of a career person who knows how to run the place.”