Representative John Ratcliffe is a Trump loyalist who played a prominent role in last week’s House hearing featuring Robert Mueller.
US President Donald Trump said he plans to nominate a loyalist, Representative John Ratcliffe, as Director of National Intelligence, replacing Dan Coats, who he said would depart the office on August 15.
The president announced the personnel changes Sunday on Twitter and said he’d name an acting director shortly. Ratcliffe’s nomination will need Senate confirmation.
Coats repeatedly disagreed with Trump on key national security claims since taking on the post in March 2017, and the imminent departure of the former Republican senator from Indiana has been talked about for several months.
By contrast, Ratcliffe’s star is rising. The 53-year-old played a prominent role in last week’s House hearing featuring Robert Mueller, when the third-term lawmaker tore into the former Special Counsel as having violated “every principle and the most sacred traditions” of prosecutors by including in his report “potential crimes that were not charged.”
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer took note, and suggested Democrats won’t look favourably at Ratcliffe’s nomination.
“Rep. Ratcliffe was selected because he exhibited blind loyalty to President Trump with his demagogic questioning of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller,” Schumer said in a statement. “If Senate Republicans elevate such a partisan player to a position that requires intelligence expertise and non-partisanship, it would be a big mistake.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the intelligence community works best “when it is led by professionals who protect its work from political or analytical bias and who deliver unvarnished hard truths to political leaders in both the executive and legislative branches.”
In a statement, which didn’t mention Ratcliffe, McConnell praised Coats and singled out his role in helping coordinate the response to Russia’s effort to interfere in US elections.
Yes-Men Not Wanted
Senator Angus King of Maine, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that will consider Ratcliffe’s nomination, it’s essential the person serving as DNI doesn’t bend assessments because he or she “thinks it’s what the boss wants to hear”.
As the head of the US intelligence community, the 76-year-old Coats has embodied that principle: a rare cabinet official willing to publicly break ranks with Trump. A recent example was in January, at a congressional hearing where Coats and other intelligence chiefs contradicted the president’s statements on topics from North Korea to Islamic State.
It was a habit that drew praise from the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Amid reports in February that Coats was at risk of losing his job, Representative Adam Schiff of California said in a tweet that Coats “speaks truth to power and gives policy makers the best intelligence possible.”
Undercut on Iran
During the January hearing, Coats countered Trump’s assertion that Islamic State was defeated, testifying that “ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria”.
Defying the optimism exuded by Trump on North Korea, Coats said the government of Kim Jong Un is “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities.” His assessment came weeks after a second summit between Trump and the North Korean leader, in Vietnam in February, broke up without agreements on denuclearization.
Coats also undercut the president on Iran, testifying that intelligence agencies believed Iran was continuing to comply with the 2015 nuclear agreement from which Trump withdrew in 2018. Since then, following US moves to ramp up sanctions on the Islamic Republic, Iran began enriching uranium beyond agreed-upon limits.
Trump lashed out at the Iran assessment at the time, writing on Twitter that intelligence officials “seem to be extremely passive and naive when it comes to the dangers of Iran. They are wrong!”. Trump added: “Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!”
‘Down the Middle’
Coats’s deputy, Sue Gordon, praised his performance as a non-political intelligence chief in a July podcast with former Deputy CIA Director Michael Morrell.
“He has played intelligence straight down the middle,” Gordon said on the “Intelligence Matters” podcast. “The intelligence community is strong in part because of the way Dan has conducted his job. I don’t know that any DNI could have done in this time what Dan Coats has done and I’m proud to be a member of his team.”
In selecting Ratcliffe, Trump is moving in the opposite direction, choosing an intelligence chief who’s shown a strong appetite for partisan fights.
Interviewed on Sunday on Fox News, Ratcliffe suggested he thought the special counsel’s probe sprang from a plot to frame Trump originated under the administration of former President Barack Obama.
“They accused Donald Trump of a crime, and then they try and reverse-engineer a process to justify that accusation,” Ratcliffe said on “Sunday Morning Futures”. “It does appear that there were crimes committed during the Obama administration.”
Ratcliffe also said that Democratic Representatives Schiff and Jerrold Nadler, respective chairmen of the two House committees that held the Mueller hearing, “are starting to look more like Laurel and Hardy,” referring to the classic comedy duo.
An independent who typically caucuses with Democrats, King said of the DNI role in a telephone interview, “This is not supporting the president’s agenda. This is presenting to the president and other policy makers the best information, the most truthful information, that our intelligence community can generate.”
King added that he didn’t know Ratcliffe and would have given the same advice to a DNI nominee under President Barack Obama.
For Coats, a key instance of conflict with Trump was when he criticised the president’s decision in July 2018 to meet alone with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, saying at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado soon after that, “I would have suggested a different way, but that’s not my role, that’s not my job. So it is what it is.”
Told while on stage at the Aspen meeting that the White House had tweeted Putin was being invited to Washington, Coats said sardonically, “That’s going to be special.” In the end, the visit never occurred.
Coats was a low-profile chief of the intelligence community, often leaving the spotlight to the leaders of the better-known Central Intelligence Agency: Michael Pompeo at the start of Trump’s administration and, after he became secretary of State, Gina Haspel, the CIA’s current director.
Yet when Coats made public comments, they nearly always defended the independence of the intelligence community.
In May, Coats addressed concerns that Trump’s order telling the intelligence community to share classified documents about the start of the Russia probe with the Justice Department could result in national security secrets becoming public. He said he was confident that “long-established procedures” to safeguard the information would be followed, and he vowed to keep providing “apolitical intelligence” to the president.
Security Team Turmoil
Coats’s pending departure comes amid ongoing turmoil on Trump’s national security team and broader cabinet. The administration has no confirmed deputy defence secretary, United Nations ambassador or homeland security secretary. Labour Secretary Alex Acosta resigned on July 12 after coming under fire for his handling of a decade-old sex crimes case against investor Jeffrey Epstein, who faces new charges for trafficking girls as young as 14 for sex.
Axios reported this month that Trump isn’t convinced the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, created after the September 11 terror attacks, is even necessary. But the office was created by Congress and can’t be abolished by the president.
Coats was well known in Washington long before taking on the role coordinating the work of the federal government’s more than a dozen intelligence agencies. He served as an Indiana congressman and then senator from 1981 to 1999, stepping down because of a term-limits pledge.
He returned to the Senate in 2011 and became a member of the Finance, Intelligence and Joint Economic committees. He also served as US ambassador to Germany and worked as a lobbyist for companies such as General Electric Co. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google.
His highest-profile divergence from Trump came after the president’s 2018 summit with Putin in Helsinki, where Trump seemed to give more credence to Putin’s denial that Russia meddled in the 2016 US election than the findings of “my people” – the US intelligence community, including Coats.
Before the returning president’s plane even landed in Washington, Coats fired off his response.
“We have been clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy, and we will continue to provide unvarnished and objective intelligence in support of our national security.”