Coats' resignation a win for ... Pompeo?

John Ratcliffe may soon be the Director of National Intelligence, but will Mike Pompeo pull the strings? With Dan Coats’ resignation, the last of the “team of rivals” approach to national security has gone among Cabinet members. The direction of intelligence has increasingly been run by the Secretary of State, The Intercept’s James Risen reported this morning, and Ratcliffe’s ascension won’t change that a bit:

Mike Pompeo is still heavily influencing the U.S. intelligence community, more than a year after he left the Central Intelligence Agency for the State Department, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials.

Pompeo, who was Donald Trump’s first CIA director, is now serving as a key intermediary between Trump and the U.S. intelligence community, the officials say, a very unusual role for the Secretary of State, who is supposed to be a customer of the intelligence community, not its master.

The intermediary role Pompeo has largely usurped is supposed to be filled by the CIA director and the director of national intelligence, a post created after 9/11 and designed to coordinate the work of all of the nation’s intelligence agencies. But CIA Director Gina Haspel seems to have accepted the fact that Pompeo continues to help set the agenda on intelligence in the Trump administration from the State Department, the officials say. And after months of rumors that Dan Coats, Trump’s longtime director of national intelligence and nominal head of the U.S. intelligence community, would soon be replaced, Trump announced Sunday that Coats will step down August 15. The president said he would name Rep. John Ratcliffe, a pro-Trump Republican congressman from Texas, to take Coats’s job. Ratcliffe, one of Trump’s most ardent defenders during special counsel Robert Mueller’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee last week, will likely be far less independent of the Trump White House than was Coats.

Meanwhile, Pompeo has emerged as the administration’s de facto intelligence czar. Although some officials say that both Haspel and Coats have been present when Trump receives his intelligence briefings and so have had regular, direct access to the president, Pompeo has gained Trump’s trust in a way they haven’t.

Risen uses the word “usurped” here, and relies heavily on an argument that the CIA director is (or should be) an independent operator, but … neither really hits the mark. The State Department has its own intelligence apparatus and is one of the key customers of the overall intelligence community as well as producing some of it on its own. Regardless of who’s the Secretary of State at any time, that position will always have considerable influence on intelligence gathering, analysis, and strategy.

Besides, the independence of the CIA director might have been a better argument prior to the creation of the DNI in the post-9/11 reshuffle. Haspel is a subordinate to Coats at the moment, not a superior officer. Both had to be confirmed by the Senate, as was Pompeo. Furthermore, it’s hardly the first time that intelligence operations has been headed by individuals of like mind to the president. Few Democrats complained, for instance, when Barack Obama made political mastermind Leon Panetta the director of the CIA — and he turned out to be pretty good at the job, certainly much better than John Brennan. (Panetta was also arguably a pretty good SecDef later.) James Clapper was no partisan wallflower either as DNI. The point of presidential appointments is to put the elected president’s agenda in action, which means that truly independent thinkers in Cabinet-level positions anywhere are fairly rare creatures.

With all that said, Pompeo’s reach on intelligence may not be as problematic as Risen suggests, but it is intriguing, assuming Risen’s sources are accurate. It might explain why Pompeo hasn’t exhibited much enthusiasm for the open Senate seat in Kansas next year, and expressly denied interest in it today. And, contra the (not altogether unwarranted) worries exhibited in Risen’s piece, it suggests that the Trump administration is looking for continuity in replacing Coats with Ratcliffe, not radical change.

Consider this as well: while Pompeo is a conservative, he’s not exactly the kind of Trumpian non-interventionist that one might assume would be problematic in the role. Pompeo spent a lot of years in the House working on intelligence matters through a few administrations, which means that his guidance is probably very valuable, regardless which hat he’s wearing when providing it. His instincts seem to be good thus far. Would the people inclined to worry about this prefer that John Bolton was in this position? For some, that’s a trick question …