With Donald Trump’s choice for Dan Coats’ replacement as director of national intelligence getting pushback, is the White House looking to pick a parallel fight? The Daily Beast reports that the administration has demanded a list of all its top intelligence leaders, a curious request as Coats prepares to exit the ODNI. It might be a review aimed at getting around a statute that would require a career intel official to become the acting ODNI after Coats’ departure:
The White House recently asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for a list of all its employees at the federal government’s top pay scale who have worked there for 90 days or more, according to two sources familiar with the request.
The request appears to be part of the White House’s search for a temporary director of national intelligence—a prospect that raises concerns in some quarters about political influence over the Intelligence Community.
The request, which specifically asks for people in ODNI at the GS-15 level (the pay grade for most top government employees, including supervisors) or higher, comes as ODNI’s leadership faces turmoil. Earlier this week, President Trump tweeted that Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will step down on August 15, and that he plans to nominate Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe for the post. But Ratcliffe faces a contentious confirmation process that’s all but certain to stretch past the 15th, and the White House needs someone to take the DNI role in the meantime.
According to federal law, ODNI’s senate-confirmed second-in-command—the Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence, currently Sue Gordon—steps in if the DNI departs. Gordon, who has spent decades in the Intelligence Community, is revered there and on Capitol Hill. But as a career intelligence official, she isn’t viewed as Team MAGA. And the White House is reportedly eyeing ways to put someone they trust in the top role after Coats departs.
Actually, one has to wonder why Gordon didn’t get more consideration for the top job. According to her bio, she spent 27 years in the CIA and worked up the ladder in all four of its directorates. In the two years before her August 2017 appointment as Coats’ deputy, she served as deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. At the very least, Gordon would make a capable acting ODNI while Rep. John Ratcliffe moves through his confirmation process. Gordon’s pass-over will raise some eyebrows during that time anyway, especially given Ratcliffe’s thin resumé on intelligence operations. Arguably, the one person Ratcliffe might need most if and when he gets confirmed would be Gordon for her experience and her connections to the full intelligence community.
Gordon picked up a remarkable endorsement on Twitter this morning, although it’s tough to figure out whether this helps or hurts:
Deputy DNI Sue Gordon is a proven patriot who understands foreign threats, respects the nonpartisan truth, and protects America 24/7. Daughter of a Navy Vice Admiral, mother of 2 Marine captains. Gordon is a great @realDonaldTrump appointee! @SenatorBurr @LindseyGrahamSC https://t.co/1jCryBHm1A
— Rod Rosenstein (@RodRosenstein) August 2, 2019
Any attempt to push Gordon out of the way would be a very risky move in terms of Ratcliffe’s confirmation. Already, Senate Republicans are murmuring about Ratcliffe’s lack of qualifications in light of a statutory requirement for significant intel experience. If Trump tries pushing Ratcliffe through while pushing out the highly respected Gordon at the same time to get a more MAGA-friendly acting DNI, he’s likely to blow up both projects at the same time. Trump can’t afford to lose any more than three GOP votes, and a Gordon ouster might cost more than that for Ratcliffe.
That nomination might already be in trouble anyway amid claims that Ratcliffe might have engaged in a little resumé padding to justify his nomination:
ABC News reported Tuesday that Ratcliffe “misrepresented his role in an anti-terrorism case that he’s repeatedly cited among his credentials related to national security issues.”
Ratcliffe claimed in a 2015 press release that he convicted individuals who funneled money to Hamas, a group designated by the State Department in 1997 as a foreign terrorist organization, but ABC News reported that it could not find any public court record linking him to the case.
The outlet also raised doubt about Ratcliffe’s claim in a February 2016 campaign website post highlighting his “special appointment as the prosecutor in U.S. v. Holy Land Foundation.”
The response from Senate Intelligence Committee chair Richard Burr to these issues doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of Ratcliffe:
“You’re asking me to comment on a news story about someone who’s not been nominated,” Burr said, noting that Ratcliffe has yet to be formally nominated. “When he’s nominated and we do an investigation I’ll be happy to comment on what I think his qualifications are.”
In other words, it might be a long time for Ratcliffe to gain enough support to win a confirmation vote … if he ever does. In the meantime, the White House should keep Gordon in place, if for no other reason than to provide cover in case they need to fall back to a different DNI nominee. And that may well be why they’re asking for the list — not to find another acting DNI to replace Gordon, but to find a friendly face to replace Ratcliffe if that nomination turns out to be a bust.