Why you should care
Because the American intelligence community could soon be run by one of its most vocal critics.
Robert Mueller’s rather underwhelming testimony before the House of Representatives last week about the Russia investigation might not have lived up to its billing, but the televised spectacle marked a successful performance and national debut for at least one of its participants: John Ratcliffe. The three-term Republican congressman from Texas channeled his legal training and political outrage to make the most of his handful of minutes cross-examining the special counsel.
Perhaps Ratcliffe’s grandest moment came when he (wrongly) informed Mueller — a zealous stickler for the rules who is respected by both parties — that he had not followed the special counsel regulations by noting in his report that the investigation could not exonerate the president. “It clearly says, ‘Write a confidential report about decisions reached,’ ” Ratcliffe pointed out. “Nowhere in here does it say, ‘Write a report about decisions that weren’t reached.’ ”
Ratcliffe has been a vocal critic of Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and Russia, but his televised grilling of the special counsel last week appears to have garnered the attention (and appreciation) of at least one television viewer at home — the one who just nominated him to be the new director of national intelligence (DNI): Donald Trump. The president’s choice of Ratcliffe to replace Dan Coats does what several previous presidential nominations have now done: catapult a seemingly Trump-friendly face with only a few years of national public service into a critically important role in the government, setting up what will undoubtedly be another ugly partisan confirmation battle.
Ratcliffe’s meteoric political rise is the sort that is becoming increasingly common.
The town of Heath, Texas, has a lot going for it. The Dallas bedroom community of just over 8,000 people has a lake, rolling hills and average home values close to $500,000. It’s one of those places where the local golf and yacht club sponsors the farmer’s market. Heath is not, however, what one might normally think of as a political launching pad. Still, in just seven years, Heath has watched as its former four-term mayor beat a 17-term incumbent congressman for a seat in the House in 2014 and then got nominated to be America’s top spymaster in 2019. Ratcliffe’s meteoric political rise is the sort that is becoming increasingly common in an administration that appears to value outspoken loyalty, including timely televised indignation, over traditional résumé building. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, went from being an oilfield equipment manufacturer to congressman to CIA director in roughly the same amount of time.
The 53-year-old Ratcliffe’s résumé is not unimpressive: A Notre Dame grad with a law degree from Southern Methodist, he has served as both an anti-terrorism chief and a U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas. And, in Congress, he has served on the Intelligence, Homeland Security, Judiciary and Ethics Committees. But previous DNIs like Michael McConnell, a former National Security Agency director, and James Clapper, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, brought much higher intelligence credentials to the job, a Cabinet-level position created after the 9/11 attacks to better coordinate U.S. intelligence branches. “Ratcliffe would be the first incumbent director of national intelligence to not have major military, intelligence or ambassadorial experience,” says John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA and current OZY columnist. Ratcliffe’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but the congressman tweeted on Sunday night that he’s “deeply grateful to President Trump for the opportunity to lead our Nation’s intelligence community.”
Still, if there was one thing holding back the clean-cut, dark-haired Ratcliffe’s advance, it was not his work experience. CNN reports that Ratcliffe was previously considered for top jobs in the administration, including attorney general, but many in the West Wing felt the former small-town mayor was “too nice.” That preconception appears to have been dispelled by the congressman’s aggressive stance at the Mueller hearings, one that prompted the president to call him a “warrior” not long before tweeting on Sunday that he was nominating Ratcliffe to replace Coats, who reportedly resigned because he felt the White House was not heeding his warnings about the election threats posed by Russia.
I am pleased to announce that highly respected Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas will be nominated by me to be the Director of National Intelligence. A former U.S. Attorney, John will lead and inspire greatness for the Country he loves. Dan Coats, the current Director, will….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 28, 2019
In addition to accusing Mueller of violating “the bedrock principle of our justice” (the presumption of innocence) by leaving it open as to whether President Trump committed obstruction of justice, Ratcliffe has been one of Capitol Hill’s strongest critics of the intelligence community that he could now lead. On Fox News’ Sunday program, Ratcliffe argued that there were “crimes committed” during the Obama administration in connection to events leading up to Mueller’s probe.
Such politically charged appeals have many worried about Ratcliffe’s capacity to serve in such a sensitive position, but ultimately it will be up to the Republican-controlled Senate whether or not to confirm him. A DNI’s most important job is to fairly and objectively represent the collective view of the intelligence community, says McLaughlin, and “a president who doesn’t want that is just asking for trouble.”