WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s pick for national intelligence director has been mayor of a small Texas city, a federal prosecutor and a member of Congress. But questions were already emerging Monday about whether those qualifications are adequate for the position as the nation confronts threats that include foreign election interference, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and the risk of war with Iran.
Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe is also known as a Trump loyalist, which makes his lack of relevant experience even more striking at a time when current and former government officials expect Russia to look to interfere in the 2020 presidential election just as it did in unprecedented fashion when Trump first ran.
“Ratcliffe comes to the job with the least national security experience and the most partisan political experience of any previous director of national intelligence,” said Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director who now hosts the “Intelligence Matters” podcast.
The director of national intelligence has oversight of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, a significant job touching all corners of national security policymaking. If confirmed, Ratcliffe would be the principal intelligence adviser to Trump, who has appeared determined to surround himself with vocal protectors and defenders even in national security positions that haven’t historically been perceived as overtly partisan.
It is unclear what specific experience Ratcliffe will bring in helping thwart foreign government efforts to interfere in American politics. Also unknown is whether skepticism he has voiced in Congress about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign will affect his preparation for, or response to, any foreign influence or cyberattacks on campaigns.
Ratcliffe, who was among the most aggressive Republican questioners of Mueller at public hearings last week, would replace outgoing director Dan Coats at a time of broader reshuffling within the national security leadership structure.
“It’s a moment when Donald Trump can deepen his personal stranglehold over the intelligence function and knock out any voices of dissent to his particular worldview,” said Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland. “That’s a scary thing for the country.”
The selection comes months after Trump empowered another ally, Attorney General William Barr, to disclose still-secret intelligence collected by other agencies as part of the Russia investigation. Ratcliffe has made clear his skepticism of that investigation and his belief that Trump was treated improperly by investigators, saying in a talk show appearance Sunday that it was time to move on from discussion of impeachment.
Coats, who will step down next month, repeatedly clashed with Trump. He was publicly steadfast about his conviction that Russia had interfered in the election even in the face of the president’s ambivalence. He appeared to scoff when told in an interview that Trump had invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington. And in his resignation letter, he cited as an accomplishment the appointment of an election security executive “to support the whole-of-government effort to address threats against our election.”
Tensions with Trump notwithstanding, Coats did bring to the job decades of Washington experience, including lengthy stints as an Indiana congressman and U.S. ambassador to Germany. His predecessor in the Obama administration, James Clapper, spent decades in the military and in intelligence, including as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Ratcliffe does not have equivalent credentials, though his supporters are likely to point to his experience as a prosecutor as well as his recent membership on the House Intelligence Committee, which he joined in January.
Ratcliffe was first elected to Congress in 2014, and his experience as top federal prosecutor in east Texas gave him instant clout when Republicans ran the Judiciary panel. He was one of the main questioners when Republicans hauled in Justice Department officials to question them about whether they were biased against Trump in the early days of the FBI’s Russia probe.
It’s unclear whether concerns about his credentials will trip up the confirmation process. Confirmation takes a simple 51-vote majority, under new rules in the Senate, but that leaves slim room for error with Republicans holding a 53-seat majority.
Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that he would move swiftly to push the nomination through his panel. “I don’t have any concerns,” he told reporters.
Several Republicans on the intelligence panel said they didn’t know Ratcliffe and would wait to meet with him. “I’m open on this,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a critical swing vote for the GOP who sits on the panel, said the job is very important to her because she co-wrote the legislation that created it 15 years ago. She said she had never heard of Ratcliffe before last week, so she couldn’t comment on his qualifications, but she said she cares deeply “about having an independent, well-qualified individual in that post.”
Republican Sen. John Cornyn, another member of the committee, said that his Texas colleague is a “tremendous human being” and that he is “confident he can rise to the challenge.”
Democrats were immediately critical. The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said Ratcliffe’s questioning at the Mueller hearings “raises huge questions in my mind” about his ability to be independent.
Even before Mueller testified, Trump had his eye on Ratcliffe, who had already established himself as an outspoken defender of the president and raised Trump-backed questions about the conduct of the intelligence community in the Russia probe. But two officials said his aggressive questioning of the former special counsel cemented the president’s view that he was the right person for the job.
Last Wednesday, he told Mueller that while he accepted that Russia’s interference was “sweeping and systematic,” he was also concerned about how much intelligence came from an ex-British spy who received Democratic funding to investigate Trump and whose research helped form the basis of a secret surveillance warrant to monitor the communications of a former Trump campaign aide.
He pointedly accused Mueller of departing from the special counsel’s own rules by writing “180 pages about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided.”
“I think it’s fair to say that the political partisanship he brought to the hearing … which came across as undertaken on behalf of the president to denigrate the work of the special counsel, raises considerable questions about whether he is fit to serve as the DNI,” said David Laufman, a former Justice Department national security official.