For the past forty years, a consensus has existed among Republican and Democratic Presidents, congressional leaders, and senior intelligence officials that the intelligence and law-enforcement communities must be free of political bias. Bipartisan agreement on the issue emerged in the nineteen-seventies, after it was discovered that the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. had for decades spied on Americans engaged in constitutionally protected political activities, from members of the far-right John Birch Society to Martin Luther King, Jr. Richard Nixon’s use of former C.I.A. operatives to carry out “dirty tricks” on his political opponents raised further fears of politicizing the spy agencies. The 2003 invasion of Iraq—based on an incorrect intelligence assessment that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—showed the dangers of telling a President what he wants to hear. The bitter partisanship that Trump intentionally fuels is eroding a forty-year consensus in Washington regarding the need for apolitical intelligence. Fuelled by Trump, Republicans believe that intelligence agencies are plotting against the President; Democrats, in turn, are convinced the President is silencing intelligence chiefs who disagree with him.
Whether Ratcliffe becomes the director of National Intelligence now rests with the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, which must confirm his nomination, once Trump formally submits it, before passing it on for a full Senate vote. The committee’s chairman, Richard Burr, of North Carolina, has done an admirable job of producing a bipartisan investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Burr, who is not running for reëlection, is one of a handful of Republican senators with the ability to defy Trump. He reportedly cautioned the White House that Ratcliffe was too political for such a powerful position. Trump named Ratcliffe anyway.