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Utah Rep. Chris Stewart responds to reports of intelligence chief post

A New York Times report says national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien is pushing President Donald Trump to nominate Stewart

Congressman Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduces his latest legislation, the Fairness for All Act, which aims to harmonize religious freedom and LGBT rights, during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019.
Congressman Chris Stewart, R-Utah, introduces his latest legislation, the Fairness for All Act, which aims to harmonize religious freedom and LGBT rights, during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019.
Cheryl Diaz Meyer, for the Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The White House is considering Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, as the next director of national intelligence as a deadline looms to replace the acting director within weeks.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien is pushing President Donald Trump to nominate Stewart, citing sources briefed on the matter.

Joseph Maguire, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, has filled in as acting director of national intelligence since Dan Coats resigned in August. But under current law limiting how long acting cabinet-level officials can serve, Maguire must step down next month.

Responding to the report, Stewart issued a statement Wednesday, saying he is “only focused on my work in Congress and serving the people of Utah’s Second District. I remain committed to representing my constituents and addressing the issues that first brought me to Congress, such as our debt and spending and rebuilding our military.”

Stewart has announced he is running for a fifth term representing Utah’s 2nd Congressional District, where he faces a primary challenge, as well as Democratic and third-party opponents. The Times said it’s not clear if he would be willing to give up his seat early to take the job.

This is not the first time Stewart has been in the mix for an appointment in the administration. Shortly after Trump’s election, the 59-year-old retired Air Force major was reportedly under consideration for secretary of the Air Force.

The Times reported that those close to Stewart said he has long been interested in the intelligence chief post. “He is well-liked by congressional Republicans and is thought to enjoy support from Senate Republicans, who would confirm him if he is nominated,” the Times reported.

As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Stewart has a reputation inside the intelligence agencies as being prepared and asking well-informed questions, according to the Times. And he was an ardent defender of the president during the panel’s impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

He was highly critical of how Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., handled the closed-door impeachment hearings. In late October, Stewart said he opened the door to the secure room where the hearings were held, allowing irate House GOP members to disrupt the classified investigative session.

He accused Democrats of being motivated by “hate” for the president and for those who voted for him in a floor speech before the House passed articles of impeachment charging Trump with abuse or power and obstruction of Congress.

“They want to take away my vote and throw it in the trash,” Stewart said. “They want to take away my president and delegitimize him so he cannot be reelected.”

Partisan fallout over the impeachment saga continues to fester between intelligence committee members. Stewart and other committee Republicans boycotted a subcommittee hearing Wednesday, accusing Schiff of straying from the panel’s mission of intelligence oversight to engage in “political investigations and publicity stunts.”

In a letter to Schiff, GOP members complained of Democrats refusing to look into alleged abuses of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by the FBI. The issues detailed in an inspector general’s report are related to warrant applications to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.

Democrats dismissed the boycott as a GOP publicity stunt over “some perceived grievance with the impeachment investigation,” said Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., chairman of the Intelligence Subcommittee on Strategic Technologies and Advanced Research. Stewart is ranking member of the subcommittee and co-signed the letter.

Before the impeachment inquiry, Stewart was also aligned with Trump in criticizing how the Justice Department and FBI handled the investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election.

But like many GOP members of Utah’s congressional delegation, Stewart was not always a Trump supporter. During the 2016 election, Stewart said the GOP nominee “does not represent Republican ideals, he is our Mussolini.

In a recent interview with the Deseret News, Stewart explained how his opinion of the president has evolved from skeptical to all-in.

Stewart said he was Sen. Marco Rubio’s campaign chairman in Utah. But when the Florida Republican dropped out of the presidential race, the choice for Stewart was obvious.

“It was either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t easy, but it was a clear choice,” Stewart said.

Trump’s promise to nominate conservative judges to the federal bench and Supreme Court was a major factor for Stewart. The novelist and author of books on the Founding Fathers was not convinced of Trump’s conservative bonafides, but he felt safer with him than Clinton.

“Sometimes we realize, given these two choices, this is the right thing for this country. And as I’ve watched the president govern, he’s truly governed as a conservative on regulatory reform, on tax reform, on being willing to allow the military to defeat ISIS. I could keep going.”

Another factor in Stewart’s support for Trump is the president’s support for religious freedom protections as legislative and legal battles surface weighing constitutional rights of faith groups and the LGBTQ community.

Stewart recently introduced a bill titled the Fairness For All Act that would carve out exemptions for religious objectors to the Equality Act, which passed the House last year and would add sexual orientation and identity to the list of protected classes under the Civil Rights Act.

The Times reported that the administration must have an intelligence director nominated and confirmed or another acting director named by March 11, when Maguire’s time to serve as acting director expires.

Maguire, a retired Navy admiral, has support within the administration and could be nominated as permanent intelligence director. The Times reported that his counterterrorism expertise is an asset to Trump, who has been focused on strikes against terrorist leaders.

Maguire was named to the temporary post after Trump’s early choice, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, withdrew in August after questions about whether he exaggerated his résumé.