Rising star Ratcliffe faces battle to become Trump’s intel chief
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) has over the past two years grown from a relatively unknown lawmaker to a prominent member among House Republicans, in large part because of his role in investigating GOP allegations of wrongdoing by the Justice Department and FBI during the 2016 election.
Now, the Republican congressman and former U.S. attorney is the president’s pick to replace Dan Coats at the helm of the intelligence community.
Ratcliffe, 53, may face an uphill confirmation battle to become the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). He is a new member of the House Intelligence Committee and has limited national security experience, which will be a point of criticism at least among Senate Democrats.
Trump’s decision to tap Ratcliffe for the role also represents a growing effort by the president to fill his Cabinet with his political allies. That could prove a hurdle for the GOP lawmaker as he seeks to convince senators that he will provide an unvarnished, unbiased account of the nation’s intelligence and speak truth to power when necessary.
Ratcliffe has made multiple appearances on Fox News, where he has cast doubt on the credibility of the origins of the Russia investigation and trumpeted conservative allegations FBI agents were biased in their decision to open a probe into the Trump campaign’s ties to Moscow.
On Sunday, Ratcliffe alleged that there were “crimes committed” during the Obama administration.
While Republicans argue they’re trying to hold government officials accountable, Democrats and some former intelligence members say their efforts are meant to undermine the intelligence community and former special counsel Robert Mueller’s now-shuttered Russia investigation.
Ratcliffe’s allies are offering a steadfast defense of his character and abilities after his nomination announcement Sunday was met with criticism.
“You’re welcome to disagree with him on policy, but you cannot be around him without being struck by his fairness and his humility and his willingness to hear you out,” said former Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the former chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, who retired last year.
“He wound up becoming my best friend in the House after I did everything to keep him from getting to the House. Most people don’t do that,” Gowdy added, noting that he had endorsed Ratcliffe’s opponent, longtime incumbent Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), when he first made a run for Congress in 2014. Ratcliffe ended up defeating Hall in a runoff.
Gowdy, who was among Ratcliffe’s closest friends in the House, also played a role in raising Ratcliffe’s name to the president, stating in an interview with The Hill that he first requested a meeting with Trump to propose Ratcliffe as a possible candidate for attorney general.
But as a prolonged government shutdown and other matters popped up, the meeting Gowdy requested with Trump was ultimately pushed back until after the president had already announced William Barr as his pick to lead the Justice Department. Still, Gowdy praised Ratcliffe during a golf outing with the president after his Barr appointment, to which Trump indicated he would keep the Texas Republican in mind for other similar positions.
Still, Ratcliffe currently appears to be somewhat of an unknown quantity among GOP members in the upper chamber, unlike Coats, a former senator from Indiana. A number of GOP senators — including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — released statements praising Coats and lamenting his departure without mentioning Ratcliffe’s nomination.
When asked about Ratcliffe on Monday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she didn’t know Ratcliffe “at all” and that she has “special interest” in the position because it was established under a 2004 law she co-wrote.
“I feel very strongly about this position and the importance of having someone with the integrity and skill and ability to bring all of the members of the intelligence together,” Collins said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said he would wait until Ratcliffe’s confirmation process to make a judgment but noted Ratcliffe has “really good credentials,” having handled sensitive cases as a U.S. attorney.
Thune also predicted that Ratcliffe’s ability to push back against the president would come up at his confirmation hearing.
“We need that in that position and I’m sure that will be one of the areas of questions that he’ll get,” Thune said.
Ratcliffe has earned praise from Trump confidants, such as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who tweeted that Ratcliffe “will be a worthy successor and has my full support,” and Sen. John Cornyn (R), a fellow Texan.
Ratcliffe is aligned closely with Trump in his criticisms of the Russia investigation — in contrast with Coats, whose public pronouncements on Russian election interference, Iran and other issues have put him at odds with Trump at various points in the administration.
Coats has been widely praised for telling “truth to power.”
Trump is said to have soured on Coats months ago, opening up a flood of rumors about potential replacements, including Ratcliffe, who catapulted himself further into the spotlight last week with his aggressive questioning of Mueller.
Ratcliffe launched into a blistering attack on Mueller’s report during the former special counsel’s testimony on Capitol Hill, suggesting Mueller violated Justice Department rules by explicitly declining to exonerate Trump of allegations of obstruction of justice.
“It was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him, because the bedrock principle of our justice system is presumption of innocence. It exists for everyone,” Ratcliffe said, raising his voice. “Everyone is entitled to it — even sitting presidents.”
The multiple headlines also led some to claim Ratcliffe was auditioning for the job. Gowdy, however, says he would have pursued that line of questioning regardless.
Ratcliffe, who has been in Congress less than five years, sits on the House Judiciary, Homeland Security and Intelligence committees and is a former federal terrorism prosecutor, which his proponents argue qualifies him for the national security role.
But beyond his time in Congress, Ratcliffe has virtually no official intelligence or foreign policy experience — a rarity for intelligence nominees. Coats, however, similarly moved to the ODNI role with limited official intelligence experience.
Critics are wary of his statements criticizing the FBI and have questioned his qualifications. Some worry that Ratcliffe is too political and wouldn’t maintain the independence from Trump that Coats did.
“I think [Coats] has done a good of a job as anyone could have done in preserving the integrity and function of the intelligence community across the board,” Steve Cash, an ex-CIA officer and former chief counsel to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), told The Hill, calling Ratcliffe the “polar opposite.”
“He is neither a professional nor has he exhibited any evidence that he understands or even cares about the proper function of the intelligence community in protecting America,” Cash said.
Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) alleged that Ratcliffe was only offered the role “because he exhibited blind loyalty to President Trump with his demagogic questioning of” Mueller.
Ratcliffe’s supporters, however, dispute claims he would unquestionably serve the president, pointing to various times Ratcliffe showed an independent streak and bucked both his base and his party.
“[The] first vote he cast in Congress was one of independence from what his base wanted him to do. He voted for Boehner. And I bet you that was the least popular vote he cast his first term in Congress, and it was the first vote he cast,” Gowdy said, referring to a GOP vote in 2014 to give then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) another two-year term.
Ratcliffe is more likely than not to be confirmed barring major controversy, given the Republican majority in the Senate.
But that doesn’t mean it won’t be a bruising battle for Ratcliffe, who is sure to face scrutiny of his past comments during his confirmation hearing.
Coats, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee and as U.S. ambassador to Germany, was approved easily in a 85-12 vote in March 2017. Other Trump nominees for national security posts, like CIA Director Gina Haspel, have proven more controversial but were confirmed narrowly in the end.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) did not offer an explicit endorsement of Ratcliffe in a statement Tuesday, but said he called to “congratulate” the Texas Republican on Sunday and pledged to “swiftly” act on the nomination once it’s official.
While his support in the Senate has yet to fully become clear, Ratcliffe is widely liked by Republicans in the House, where he formed various powerful friendships with a variety of members from the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus to more moderate Republicans and party leaders.
GOP members consider Ratcliffe their star questioner, so much so that the Texas lawmaker jumped past more senior members on both the Judiciary and Intelligence committees to press Mueller last week, following the two committees’ Republican ranking members.
He also has formed various ties with Democrats in the House, particularly with his focus on cyber, including election security matters. He has co-sponsored multiple cyber-focused bills with Democrats like Reps. Jim Langevin (R.I.), Jim Himes (Conn.) and Ro Khanna (Calif.).
Jordain Carney contributed.
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