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Nomination Of Ratcliffe For DNI Is Already In Trouble

Democrats are openly skeptical and Republicans are not leaping to Ratcliffe's defense.

Another high-ranking official is departing the White House and there are already concerns about the congressman that President Trump has named to replace him. The current director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, has submitted his resignation, which will become effective on August 15. Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican known for his loyalty to President Trump and who was last seen criticizing Robert Mueller for his report’s take on President Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice, is the president’s pick for a replacement.

Dan Coats, a veteran of the US Army Corps of Engineers who served from 1966 through 1968, was an Indiana congressman throughout the 1980s. He was elected to the first of two stints in the Senate in 1988, filling the seat of Vice President Dan Quayle. Coats left the Senate in 1998 and was appointed ambassador to Germany by George W. Bush in 2001. He was re-elected to the Senate in 2011 where he served until Donald Trump appointed him DNI in 2017.

In his role as DNI, Coats has been at odds with the president several times. He has publicly criticized Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin and his handling of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Coats has also contradicted Trump’s claims that Putin was innocent of interfering in the 2016 presidential elections and defended the US intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s actions. Last Friday, Coats created a new position within his office to monitor threats to election security, which may have also raised President Trump’s ire.

There are signs that Coats has been outside of Trump’s inner circle for a while. In July 2018, he appeared to be blindsided by news of Vladimir Putin’s upcoming White House visit when NBC’s Andrea Mitchell broke the story on national television. Rumors of Coats’ departure have been swirling for months.

In contrast to Coats’ long record, John Ratcliffe is a law professor who was the mayor of Heath, Texas prior to being appointed DOJ Chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security for the Eastern District of Texas by George W. Bush in 2004. He subsequently served as the US Attorney for East Texas from 2007 through 2008. Afterward, he returned to a private law practice until he was elected to Congress in 2014.

As a congressman, Ratcliffe was chairman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Protection. In 2017, he was instrumental in the passage of the “Strengthening State and Local Cyber Crime Fighting Act of 2017,” which authorized the Secret Service to train and educate state and local law enforcement and judicial officials about cybercrime.

The hurdles to Ratcliffe’s confirmation will likely be in regard to both his inexperience in intelligence as well as his embrace of conspiracy theories regarding the Russia investigation. Indeed, Ratcliffe may have been catapulted to the top of the president’s list with his spirited attacks on Robert Mueller during the special counsel’s House testimony last week.

In the hearing, Ratcliffe attacked the Mueller report’s statement that President Trump could not be exonerated, saying, “So Americans need to know this, as they listen to the Democrats and socialists on the other side of the aisle, as they do dramatic readings from this report: that Volume 2 of this report was not authorized under the law to be written. It was written to a legal standard that does not exist at the Justice Department. And it was written in violation of every DOJ principle about extra-prosecutorial commentary.”

Politifact examined Ratcliffe’s claim and judged it to be false. Politifact points out that federal regulations state, “At the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination [emphasis mine] decisions reached by the Special Counsel.”

Ratcliffe has also repeated the debunked claim that the Steele dossier was the origin of the Russia investigation.  The Steele dossier was referenced in an October 2016 FISA warrant application for Trump associate Carter Page, but, by that point, the FBI investigation of Russian contacts with Trump campaign staffers had already been underway for several months, initiated by the news that George Papadopoulos had been telling contacts about a Russian offer of information on Hillary Clinton since May 2016.

Already, some Democrats are questioning whether Ratcliffe is qualified and suited for the chief intelligence post. There are questions about whether Ratcliffe is too political for the national security position and whether his allegiance to President Trump would allow him to present information objectively.

“I don’t know this guy,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on MSNBC. “I think he’s a television character that the president has watched on TV, and he wants to put somebody in this position who’s going to agree with his political take on intelligence.”

“I’ll certainly do my own evaluation, but it strikes me as a very inappropriate choice for the job in a moment when we are trying to lift intelligence out of the political soup,” Murphy said, adding that Ratcliffe had a history of acting as “one of the president’s accomplices in trying to politicize intelligence.”

“The president doesn’t want people to challenge him, and when you think about an intelligence director, you want independent advice,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) told CNN. “You want to have the best available intelligence to make decisions that are based on facts and reality. That is not something our current president wants.”

Republicans have not jumped to defend their colleague. Although many Republican officials have issued statements lauding Coats and his tenure as DNI, so far none have offered support for Ratcliffe’s nomination. To the contrary, the New York Times reported that Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) “cautioned the president’s advisers that he considered Mr. Ratcliffe too political for the post, according to people familiar with the discussions.”

Blocking an appointment to the cabinet is notoriously difficult. FiveThirtyEight points out that only nine cabinet appointments have been voted down by the Senate throughout US history. The last time a Senate controlled by the president’s party nixed a nominee was in 1925. However, it is more common and recent for presidents to withdraw nominations for candidates who may lack sufficient support for confirmation.

It is too early to predict the outcome, but with Republicans only holding a three-vote majority in the Senate, few defections would be needed to sink Ratcliffe’s nomination. Ratcliffe’s most likely fate might be to have the president withdraw his nomination after several Republican senators voice their doubts about his qualifications.  

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