After a year pillorying U.S. intelligence agencies and railing against the "deep state" for plotting to undermine him, President Donald Trump is set to tack in a sharply different direction Thursday and bestow a prestigious award on an official who occupied a series of top positions at the National Security Agency, including as the spy agency's deputy director.
RIck Ledgett, who retired in April after nearly three decades at the NSA, is scheduled to receive the National Security Medal from Trump in an afternoon presentation in the Oval Office.
Ledgett's former colleagues sung his praises Wednesday, although some said there was an inherent awkwardness in Trump paying tribute to a career intelligence official while routinely taking shots at the spy agency workforce, dismissing their conclusions on issues like Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and accusing them of political bias.
"At the end of the day, honoring a career like Rick's is itself a rebuke of the many falsehoods Trump has alleged against the intelligence community," said Susan Hennessey, a former NSA attorney who now serves as executive editor of the blog, Lawfare. "He has served his country with integrity and distinction and one can only hope — probably foolishly — that the ceremony will give Trump and White House officials who enable him a moment to pause and reflect on the legacies and sacrifices of the very real men and women whose honor and integrity they so casually besmirch."
In recent months, the FBI and the Justice Department have been on the receiving end of a chunk of Trump's Twitter ire, but earlier in his term, the NSA had its time under the gun.
In February, Trump appeared to compare NSA employees to their Russian counterparts, accusing staff at the American spy agency of leaking classified information for political purposes.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump also accused the NSA of "coddling" his opponent Hillary Clinton by withholding copies of her emails.
"Obviously they don’t want to get them,” he said. “They’re protecting her, they’re coddling her."
Ledgett's predecessor as deputy director, Chris Inglis, acknowledged some tension between the president's frequent criticism of intelligence agencies and his planned tribute to Ledgett.
"Brilliance is being able to hold two disconsonant ideas in your head at the same time," said Inglis, now with Paladin Capital Group. "Even if collectively the president may think of [intelligence agencies] as the deep state, it's just really a decent gesture for a lifelong civil servant."
Inglis said Ledgett was nominated for the award during the Obama administration, although Trump would have had the final call on whether to give the medal. Several Ledgett backers said the award had the support of several longtime colleagues who now work in or with the White House, including national security adviser H.R. McMaster, NSA Director Mike Rogers, homeland security adviser Tim Bossert and deputy homeland security adviser Rob Joyce.
Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats also signed off on the award for Ledgett, they said.
"I think the White House, in general, and some of [Trump's] closest advisers know what he's done and the president decided it was the right thing to do," said former NSA Director Keith Alexander, now with Iron Net Cybersecurity.
Alexander praised Ledgett's work on a series of tough assignments, including leading the NSA task force that responded to contractor Edward Snowden's theft of a huge trove of documents detailing many of the spy agency's most closely guarded programs.
Ledgett "did a great job for a tough area where everybody is jumping to conclusions," Alexander said. "He was really good about helping propel the facts when we really needed a voice of reason."
Former NSA general counsel Raj De said Ledgett was skilled at explaining NSA's complex work in relatively simple terms.
"He had both the technical expertise to have a lot of credibility at a place like the NSA and the personal style to have a lot of credibility outside a place like the NSA to talk to lay people or policymakers in a way that's relatable, and not techno-speak," De said.
White House spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment on how Ledgett was selected for the award, although one official said no press coverage of the event is planned.
In the few months he remained in government after Trump was sworn in, Ledgett appears to have avoided direct public conflict with the president or the White House. When rumors spread that his retirement was some sort of protest against Trump, Ledgett denied them.
However, Ledgett also knocked down some reports fueled by pro-Trump partisans, including a claim that U.S. intelligence used Britain's GCHQ spy agency to surveil Trump's campaign.
In a March interview with the BBC, Ledgett dismissed that assertion as "arrant nonsense."
"Our job in the intelligence community is to be apolitical. Our job is to speak truth to power," Ledgett said at the time, adding that he had "100 percent confidence" in U.S. intelligence agencies' conclusion that Russia sought to interference in the 2016 election.
Former CIA Director John Brennan, who has been sharply critical of Trump, declined to discuss the White House's motives, but said Ledgett deserves the recognition.
"Rick Ledgett was a great colleague who made numerous contributions to America's national security over the course of his outstanding career at NSA," Brennan said in a statement. "His knowledge of the SIGINT [signals intelligence] mission was second to none."
Former NSA official Curtis Dukes said Ledgett played a critical role at NSA, which has been embattled from the Snowden era until now.
"Given recent public scrutiny of NSA, it has been a trying time for the workforce, and Rick helped a workforce in crisis," said Dukes, now with the Center for Internet Security.
Dukes said he wasn't sure what was prompting the White House to pay tribute to a longtime NSA leader right now, but said that the agency has been struggling with reports of low morale and high attrition. He also said the award could be an effort by Trump or his aides to mend fences with the broader intelligence community.
One former senior intelligence official who asked not to be named called Trump's planned award to Ledgett baffling, but welcome.
"That’s the sort of thing that happens in Washington. You get strange bedfellows doing stranger things," said the ex-official. "I'm please for Rick. It's an act of uncommon, surprising, good judgment."