Se­nate con­firms Rat­cliffe as DNI in di­vided vote

The Washington Post - - NEWS - BY SHANE HAR­RIS shane.har­ris@wash­ Paul Kane con­trib­uted to this re­port.

The Se­nate con­firmed Rep. John Rat­cliffe (R-tex.) as the next direc­tor of na­tional in­tel­li­gence on Thurs­day, cap­ping an unusu­ally pro­tracted process in which the con­gress­man with­drew his nom­i­na­tion last year in the face of bi­par­ti­san op­po­si­tion only to have Pres­i­dent Trump chal­lenge mem­bers of his own party and nom­i­nate Rat­cliffe again seven months later.

The Se­nate voted 49 to 44 to con­firm Rat­cliffe along party lines. He re­ceived more votes against his con­fir­ma­tion than any DNI in the 15-year his­tory of the of­fice.

Rat­cliffe will as­sume lead­er­ship of a sprawl­ing fed­er­a­tion of 17 in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, with a col­lec­tive bud­get of at least $60 bil­lion, at an acutely vul­ner­a­ble mo­ment for U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity. Still in the throes of a pan­demic that has killed more than 90,000 peo­ple in the United States and wrought eco­nomic dev­as­ta­tion, the United States is fac­ing a dra­matic es­ca­la­tion in ten­sions with China, the source of the vi­ral out­break; the prospect of re­peated Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2020 elec­tion, which the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity Rat­cliffe will lead has said is all but cer­tain; and painful de­ci­sions about how to sup­port se­cu­rity and de­fense bud­gets when the gov­ern­ment is spend­ing tril­lions of dol­lars to keep the econ­omy from col­laps­ing.

When Trump first tapped Rat­cliffe for the post last July, Democrats and Repub­li­cans alike were cool to the choice. Rat­cliffe had never worked in the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity. And his con­nec­tions to na­tional se­cu­rity more broadly proved both ten­u­ous — a few years as a fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor — and ex­ag­ger­ated.

To bol­ster his nom­i­na­tion, Rat­cliffe pointed to his ser­vice, be­gin­ning in 2004, as the chief of an­titer­ror­ism and na­tional se­cu­rity in the East­ern District of Texas, a po­si­tion cre­ated af­ter the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks in a ju­ris­dic­tion that didn’t see a high vol­ume of ter­ror­ism cases. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush later ap­pointed Rat­cliffe as the in­terim U.S. at­tor­ney.

But for­mer col­leagues and records showed that Rat­cliffe didn’t play a sig­nif­i­cant role in any ter­ror­ism cases, con­trary to his pub­lic claims. In a news re­lease, Rat­cliffe had touted his “spe­cial ap­point­ment as the pros­e­cu­tor” in a high-pro­file ter­ror­ism fi­nanc­ing case in 2008, U.S. v. Holy Land Foun­da­tion. But a spokesper­son later ac­knowl­edged that Rat­cliffe’s as­sign­ment wasn’t to pros­e­cute the case but rather “to in­ves­ti­gate is­sues re­lated to” why an ini­tial pros­e­cu­tion of Holy Land Foun­da­tion re­sulted in a mis­trial.

Rat­cliffe also dis­torted his record on im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment, a key pol­icy pri­or­ity of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, boast­ing dur­ing his campaign and on his con­gres­sional web­site that he “ar­rested 300 il­le­gal im­mi­grants in a sin­gle day.” That wasn’t true.

Trump’s de­sire to put Rat­cliffe in charge of all U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, which he an­nounced in a tweet, came as a sur­prise even to White House aides, who had not vet­ted the three-term con­gress­man and thought the pres­i­dent fa­vored him for a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion, pos­si­bly home­land se­cu­rity sec­re­tary, of­fi­cials said at the time.

Trump had been ea­ger to re­place for­mer sen­a­tor Daniel R. Coats as the DNI. The two had a rocky re­la­tion­ship, and Trump was fu­ri­ous at Coats for sub­tly but un­mis­tak­ably crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent’s cred­u­lous ap­proach to Rus­sia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, par­tic­u­larly on the facts of the Krem­lin’s in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion. Trump had long ex­pressed doubts about Rus­sia’s ac­tions, but Coats made clear, on more than one oc­ca­sion, that the en­tire in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity spoke with a sin­gle voice when it as­sessed that Rus­sia did in­ter­fere, and with the goal of help­ing Trump’s campaign.

Coats re­signed on July 28. Trump thought Repub­li­can law­mak­ers would be pleased when he quickly picked Rat­cliffe to re­place Coats, of­fi­cials said at the time. The con­gress­man had been a stri­dent critic of spe­cial coun­sel Robert S. Mueller III’S in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence, which Trump de­rided as a par­ti­san “hoax” de­signed to un­der­mine his pres­i­dency and aid Democrats.

But key Repub­li­cans quickly sig­naled that Rat­cliffe lacked the na­tional se­cu­rity ex­per­tise that is re­quired by law to serve as DNI. And the con­gress­man’s col­leagues de­scribed him as one of the least in­volved mem­bers of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, one of two bod­ies that con­ducts over­sight of the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity and is rou­tinely briefed on clas­si­fied mat­ters.

Rat­cliffe, who had served on the com­mit­tee for only seven months, hadn’t trav­eled overseas to get an up-close view of in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tions, as com­mit­tee mem­bers typ­i­cally do, par­tic­u­larly when they are new to the sub­ject.

Even by the tu­mul­tuous stan­dards of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, Rat­cliffe’s nom­i­na­tion, which fell apart in less than a week, was a spec­tac­u­lar flame­out.

Rat­cliffe with­drew his nom­i­na­tion on Aug. 2, say­ing he re­mained con­vinced that if con­firmed by the Se­nate he would have served “with the ob­jec­tiv­ity, fair­ness and in­tegrity that our in­tel­li­gence agen­cies need and de­serve.”

In tweets, Trump blamed the me­dia for Rat­cliffe’s de­ci­sion, say­ing he had been treated “very un­fairly.”

“Rather than go­ing through months of slan­der and li­bel, I ex­plained to John how mis­er­able it would be for him and his fam­ily to deal with these peo­ple,” Trump wrote. “John has there­fore de­cided to stay in Congress where he has done such an out­stand­ing job rep­re­sent­ing the peo­ple of Texas, and our Coun­try.”

Rat­cliffe will now re­place Richard Grenell, the U.S. am­bas­sador to Ger­many, who has served as the act­ing DNI since Fe­bru­ary.

Democrats were out­raged by Trump’s de­ci­sion to pick a fierce par­ti­san com­bat­ant as his act­ing in­tel­li­gence chief. Grenell, a for­mer State Depart­ment of­fi­cial and com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­ec­u­tive, had been a Trump con­fi­dant and out­spo­ken de­fender on Twit­ter, where he fre­quently sparred with jour­nal­ists.

Grenell’s crit­ics warned that he was lead­ing a po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated purge of the in­tel­li­gence direc­tor’s of­fice, which had re­ceived a whistle­blower com­plaint al­leg­ing that Trump pres­sured the gov­ern­ment of Ukraine to in­ves­ti­gate his po­lit­i­cal ri­vals, charges that helped spark Trump’s im­peach­ment.

In April, Trump fired the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity in­spec­tor gen­eral, Michael Atkin­son, who han­dled the whistle­blower com­plaint.

Con­cerns that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is at­tempt­ing to use clas­si­fied in­tel­li­gence to po­lit­i­cal ends flared again last week, af­ter Grenell gave At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr a list he had de­clas­si­fied of for­mer Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing then-vice Pres­i­dent Joe Biden, Trump’s pre­sump­tive op­po­nent for Novem­ber’s elec­tion, who may have re­ceived in­tel­li­gence doc­u­ments iden­ti­fy­ing for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael T. Flynn.

With some law­mak­ers fear­ing po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence by the na­tion’s top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, con­gres­sional aides said Trump pre­sented the Se­nate with two un­palat­able choices when he nom­i­nated Rat­cliffe a sec­ond time: Stick with Grenell, who pub­licly de­voted more at­ten­tion to at­tack­ing his and the pres­i­dent’s op­po­nents than speak­ing about na­tional in­tel­li­gence, or ac­cept Rat­cliffe, who would not be the most ex­pe­ri­enced DNI but would be more ac­count­able to Congress.

Ear­lier this month, in an ex­tra­or­di­nary con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing in which Rat­cliffe and mem­bers of the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee sat far apart from each other to avoid po­ten­tial spread of the coro­n­avirus, the nom­i­nee faced re­peated ques­tion­ing about whether he would stand up to Trump and if he agreed with the pres­i­dent’s stated be­lief that a rogue “deep state” of ca­reer gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials is try­ing to un­der­mine his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Rat­cliffe, who was one of Trump’s most re­li­able de­fend­ers dur­ing im­peach­ment hear­ings, said he didn’t want to “re-lit­i­gate” the is­sues and that he had been con­cerned Trump didn’t re­ceive “due process” be­fore the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

“I want to make it very clear, if con­firmed as DNI, ev­ery whistle­blower, past, present and fu­ture, will en­joy ev­ery pro­tec­tion un­der the law,” Rat­cliffe told sen­a­tors.

Rat­cliffe said he un­der­stood that be­ing the in­tel­li­gence direc­tor de­manded he hold no al­le­giances to party or pol­i­tics.

“Re­gard­less of what any­one wants our in­tel­li­gence to re­flect, the in­tel­li­gence I will pro­vide if con­firmed will not be al­tered or im­pacted by out­side in­flu­ence,” Rat­cliffe said.


John Rat­cliffe with­drew an ear­lier nom­i­na­tion last year.

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