Utah Rep. Chris Stewart could be Trump’s next intelligence director

(Photo courtesy of the White House) Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, posted this photo on Twitter on Nov. 5, 2019, saying he had recently met with President Donald Trump. He said they talked about the nation's "most pressing issues." He declined to elaborate when asked by The Tribune for more information.

Washington • President Donald Trump is reportedly considering Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, to head the nation’s intelligence community.

Stewart, who has been a loyal defender of the president throughout the impeachment proceedings, is a top contender to be director of national intelligence, according to a The New York Times report citing current and former Trump administration officials.

Stewart, if appointed and confirmed by the Senate, would oversee the nation's 17 intelligence agencies and serve as a key adviser to the president on intelligence issues.

The four-term Utah congressman, who is a member of the House Intelligence Committee and a retired Air Force major, didn’t directly comment about the possible job.

“I am only focused on my work in Congress and serving the people of Utah’s 2nd District," Stewart said in a statement. "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.”

The Times reported that Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, has been pushing Stewart for the position, which needs to be filled before mid-March when the temporary appointment of the acting director expires.

If Stewart is appointed, it would put him in charge of an array of intelligence agencies that he has publicly disagreed with in regard to the Russian interference in the 2016 election to help Trump win the White House.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in January 2017 that Russia meddled in the election with the intent of harming Democrat Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning and “developed a clear preference” for Trump.

“We have high confidence in these judgments,” the report said, a point acknowledged by Russian President Vladimir Putin who said he directed his government to help Trump.

Stewart said in an interview last year that he buys that Russia interfered but didn't come to the same conclusion that it was to help Trump.

“For someone to answer that question definitively, they’d have to crawl inside Mr. Putin’s head,” Stewart told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s impossible to know. I’ve spent days, not just hours, but days, actually looking at intelligence.”

Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, didn't comment on the possibility of Stewart's appointment but praised the Utah congressman.

“Chris is a key committee member who’s highly engaged in our work and highly knowledgeable on the full range of intelligence issues,” Nunes said in a statement. “It’s hard to overestimate his value to all our efforts.”

Stewart emerged during the House impeachment process as a diehard supporter of the president, repeatedly calling the Democrats’ effort a partisan sham and declaring that the president had done nothing wrong. At one point, Stewart likened the impeachment to a “coup” against the duly elected president.

Stewart wasn't always a Trump fan.

During the GOP primaries in 2016, Stewart raised concerns about Trump, calling him “our Mussolini,” a reference to Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who led Italy before and during World War II.

“As a Republican, I’m telling you: Donald Trump does not represent Republican ideas,” Stewart said in March 2016. At the time, Stewart backed Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., for the GOP nomination.

Like many elected Republicans, Stewart has embraced the president and he’s now serving as a co-chairman of Trump’s 2020 reelection effort in Utah.

While Stewart has won reelection by large margins since his initial 2012 campaign, a recent poll contained a bit of sobering news. The survey by UtahPolicy.com and KUTV conducted last month showed him with an approval rating of 39%, while 37% of likely voters gave him bad marks. About 25% of those surveyed said they neither approved nor disapproved of Stewart.

Should Stewart be appointed and confirmed, he would have to resign his seat in the House, setting up a special election to replace him. The Utah Legislature is still debating a bill that would set rules for when that election is held and the process for running for the office. That proposal would require a primary and general election to fill the seat.