WASHINGTON — President Trump’s new acting director of national intelligence may hold the job for only about three weeks — unless the White House quickly finds a permanent nominee to offer to the Senate for confirmation.
The president tapped Richard Grenell, the American ambassador to Germany, on Wednesday to add the role overseeing the nation’s 17 spy agencies to his existing duties. Mr. Grenell agreed to hold the post for only a limited period of time, according to people familiar with his plan.
Federal law gives the president a great deal of flexibility to appoint whomever he chooses to the position on a temporary basis while his official nominee for the job awaits confirmation from the Senate. Under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, Mr. Grenell can serve in his post only until March 11 unless the president formally nominates someone else for the job.
That move would allow Mr. Grenell to serve for months longer as the nomination works its way through the Senate. Two administration officials said that officials were aware that they must nominate someone else soon, and that the process to find a formal nominee was underway.
“The President will announce the Nominee (not me) sometime soon,” Mr. Grenell wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning.
It was the latest instance of complicated maneuvering by the White House to place people the president favors in specific positions. Mr. Grenell, a Trump loyalist, has little experience in intelligence or in running a large bureaucracy, and would be likely to face resistance in the Senate if he were nominated permanently for the post. Notably, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard M. Burr, Republican of North Carolina, has not issued a statement praising Mr. Grenell.
It was not clear whom Mr. Trump would nominate, and indeed he might choose someone with little chance at drawing Senate approval to keep Mr. Grenell in the position as long as he can.
Even if the Senate rejected a new nominee, it would effectively reset the clock on Mr. Grenell’s tenure, said Eric Columbus, a former Obama administration Justice Department official.
“The Federal Vacancies Reform Act is coming into play constantly in this administration and allows the president a great deal of leeway in appointing acting officials,” Mr. Columbus said.
Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, agreed, saying an “acting” appointee could follow someone else who was “acting” so long as there was a new nominee who had been sent to the Senate.
Without that, he said, “it doesn’t extend the clock” on how long the temporary appointee can serve.
Mr. Grenell replaces Joseph Maguire, who was also an acting director of intelligence and may have had to give up the position by March 11, according to federal law.
The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel reviewed the vacancies act and how it applied to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last year, when the president appointed Mr. Maguire.
“The clocks are very generous,” Mr. Columbus said. “They were intended for good-faith uses, and it may very well be they are acting in good faith and they intend to nominate someone who can be confirmed and they aren’t going to nominate Judge Judy.”
But Mr. Columbus argued that Mr. Maguire did not need to be replaced to reset the clock on an acting director.
“There was no legal impediment to keeping Maguire and just making a permanent nomination,” he said. “That he is getting rid of Maguire now suggests he is maybe dissatisfied with what Maguire did in regards to the Ukraine whistle-blower.”
Even before his new appointment on Wednesday, Mr. Grenell had been working with the White House on issues related to intelligence, including pressuring Germany and other allies not to use the Chinese telecom company Huawei to build the next-generation mobile network known as 5G over security concerns. He is not giving up his ambassadorship to Germany or a broader diplomatic portfolio that involves developing a rail path between Kosovo and Serbia.
Mr. Grenell has spoken to people about the need to have the Office of the Director of National Intelligence function as an entity that is not in competition with the various intelligence branches, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
Before Mr. Grenell’s appointment became public on Wednesday, the decision was kept under wraps within the White House, with only a few people aware of it ahead of time.
Julian E. Barnes reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.