Two days ago I would have said no way. Rep. John Ratcliffe was one of the most aggressive Republican questioners at Bob Mueller’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, endearing him to the GOP base. And his biggest political “sin,” allegiance to the president, is to be expected (to some degree) in all cabinet officials. Even ones who, like the Director of National Intelligence, are expected to be less partisan in their roles than most department chiefs.
But, two days later, it’s an open question whether he can get through the Senate. Media coverage of Ratcliffe has been scathing because of his suggestion to Mueller at the hearing that Russia might have interfered in 2016 to help Hillary Clinton, not Trump, which contradicts U.S. intel assessments. That won’t bother Trump, of course, but it might bother Susan Collins. And confirmation fights are one of the few areas in which the Senate has asserted some independence from Trump, rejecting both Stephen Moore and Herman Cain for Fed appointments.
I think they’d rubber-stamp a well-qualified nominee for Trump even if he happens to be a sycophant whom they fear might politicize intelligence at Trump’s behest. But what if he’s not so well qualified? This piece at Time got my attention:
In naming Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe to be Director of National Intelligence, Trump ignored a warning from Republican Sen. Richard Burr, the chairman of the intelligence committee, according to Congressional aides familiar with the matter. Burr told the White House last week that the move would inject more partisan politics into the work of the intelligence agencies, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act (IRTPA) stipulates that the DNI must have “extensive national security experience”. Ratcliffe was a prosecutor and politician in Texas and has served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for only seven months. Coats and his predecessors in the job all had years of experience in the intelligence community, overseeing it, and serving as U.S. ambassadors.
So Burr is lukewarm about Ratcliffe right out of the chute, and there’s statutory cover for Republican senators to reject him on “neutral” grounds — lack of experience — if they’re privately worried that he’s too eager to ingratiate himself to Trump to deliver intelligence that the president might not want to hear. As noted in the excerpt, Ratcliffe’s only served on the House Intel Committee for half a year; other than that, his sole experience with national intelligence was in the U.S. Attorney’s office in east Texas more than a decade ago, when he was chief of anti-terrorism and national security. How much experience he received in that role is as yet unclear, though: The U.S. Attorney who supervised him says he worked on several cases involving domestic and international terrorism but ABC discovered that one of the cases in which Ratcliffe has long claimed involvement (the Holy Land Foundation trials) has no mention of him anywhere in the record.
Even if he did supervise cases in one district for a few years, does that plus seven months on the House Intel Committee amount to “extensive national security experience” under the statute? Senate Republicans sound iffy:
Mr. Trump’s pick, Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, could face an uphill battle, Senate Republicans said in private conversations. Several said they wanted to keep the intelligence post apolitical, and Mr. Ratcliffe will need to show he can move beyond the die-hard conservative persona that has made him a star in the House and on Fox News but less well known among senators who will decide whether to confirm him…
The political winds from the Trump White House have buffeted the intelligence agencies, and Mr. Coats worked to insulate them. If Mr. Ratcliffe is confirmed, some current and former American officials believe that other top intelligence officials like the C.I.A. director, Gina Haspel, and the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, could lose their shield against White House interference and partisan criticism…
Mr. Ratcliffe … has indicated that he intends to clean house [at DNI], according to people familiar with his plans. The fate of Mr. Coats’s deputy, Sue Gordon, who runs the office’s day-to-day operations, is unclear. The White House did not immediately announce that she would serve as the acting director when Mr. Coats departs on Aug. 15, as is typical.
Again, I think Ratcliffe’s lack of experience is mostly a pretext for a potential no vote. It’s a genuine concern among senators, with some intel pros warning WaPo that he’d be “the least-qualified person ever nominated to oversee the country’s intelligence agencies,” but it’s not their chief concern. Their chief concern is not letting a guy who gets most of his intelligence from “Fox & Friends” start dictating to U.S. intel bureaus what they’re “supposed to” believe about foreign threats, which Ratcliffe might enable by clearing out intel professionals for loyalists and muscling those who remain. One senior congressional official who spoke to WaPo claimed that he wasn’t confident that Ratcliffe concurs in the judgment of U.S. intelligence (and Mike Pompeo and Chris Wray) that Russia meddled in the 2016 campaign and did so specifically to try to aid Trump. He might reject other judgments that are inconvenient for Trump politically as well, like whether North Korea’s really prepared to denuclearize.
Trump’s first two years in office, particularly the experience of Russiagate, taught him to seek out yes-men for every vacancy, from the DOJ to the Fed to DNI. He doesn’t ever again want to be in a position where a department might cause him trouble politically, even if it’s justified on the facts, only to find the guy whom he put in charge recusing himself instead of putting out the fire for the White House. The Senate will have to decide over the next 15 months (or 15 months plus four years) how much it wants to push back on that.
Then again, does it really matter who ends up as DNI?
In a sign of how dysfunctional President Trump’s relationship with the intelligence community has become already, some senior spies and analysts say having a political ally as DNI may not make much of a difference at this point. Trump, these senior officials point out, pays only sporadic attention to his daily briefings, routinely ignores analysis that contradicts his own views, and in many cases pursues policies that analysts have concluded are fruitless or misguided.
If Ratcliffe tells him next year there’s evidence that Russia’s trying to interfere in the election on his behalf and Dan Bongino shows up on “Hannity” to say “no way,” who’s Trump going to believe?
Here’s Trump nemesis Ralph Peters going off on Ratcliffe. The fact that Trump’s enemies, including critics in the intel community who fear being marginalized by Ratcliffe as DNI, have mobilized to attack him so quickly will only help steel righties for the fight ahead. But if the votes aren’t there in the Senate, there won’t be a fight. All you’d need is Collins, Murkowski, Paul, and one more (Burr? Romney?) to balk and that’s that.