Trump Defends Ratcliffe as Pick for Intelligence Chief

March 2, 2020by Todd J. Gillman, The Dallas Morning News (TNS)
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) during testimony before the House Intelligence Committee in the impeachment of President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., November 13, 2019. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

President Donald Trump on Saturday touted Rep. John Ratcliffe as the nation’s intelligence chief, calling him “terrific” and predicting quick confirmation despite widespread bipartisan qualms that derailed his nomination to the same post last summer.

Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, was a leading defender of the president during Trump’s impeachment hearings and trial. Trump tried in July to install him as director of national intelligence, and named him again Friday to the post overseeing the nation’s spy agencies.

“He’s a terrific man. He’s been fantastic at everything he’s done. He’s highly respected,” the president said in the White House briefing room during a rare weekend appearance to provide an update on response to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. “I think he’ll go through a process and it’ll go fairly quickly. … He’s someone who’s really distinguished himself.”

Trump’s willingness to ignore the detractors reflects how emboldened he has become since his acquittal in the impeachment trial and how grateful he is to the Texas Republican who served as a loyal, forceful voice on his legal team.

Ratcliffe initially impressed Trump during hearings involving the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He further endeared himself during the House impeachment hearings and, later, as a spokesman on the defense team during the Senate trial.

The third-term congressman served as mayor of Heath, a small town east of Dallas, as a federal prosecutor and eventually as U.S. attorney for East Texas under President George W. Bush before ousting longtime GOP Rep. Ralph Hall in the 2014 primary.

That background did not mollify critics.

Last July, they cast Ratcliffe, 54, as a partisan hack unqualified to oversee the nation’s sprawling intelligence community. Suggestions quickly emerged that he had embellished his résumé by boasting of a bigger role than he actually played in a criminal case against the Holy Land Foundation, a charity linked to Hamas.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., reiterated the complaints Friday.

“Replacing one highly partisan operative with another does nothing to keep our country safe,” he said. “At a time when the Russians are interfering in our elections, we need a nonpartisan leader at the helm of the intelligence community who sees the world objectively and speaks truth to power, and unfortunately neither acting Director (Ric) Grenell nor Rep. Ratcliffe comes even close to that.”

Schumer asserted that the choice showed “lack of respect for the rule of law and the intelligence community.”

Last week, Trump picked Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and, before that, a vocal defender on Fox News, as acting director of national intelligence. Critics also question his qualifications for the demanding post, which has been vacant since last August.

Without a nominee he would only have been allowed to serve through March 11. Now, he can serve until the Senate confirms Ratcliffe, or for six months after the nomination is rejected, according to experts on national security law.

Ned Price, the National Security Council spokesman during the Obama administration, called it a cynical ploy to “reset the clock” for Grenell.

“Don’t be fooled; this isn’t a serious nomination,” he tweeted. “Trump, Ratcliffe, and Senate Rs all know he’ll never be confirmed.”

Trump announced the nomination by tweet late Friday, asserting that Ratcliffe “would have completed process earlier, but John wanted to wait until after IG Report was finished.”

He was referring to an inspector general’s report about the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign and Russian interference, and he mentioned that again on Saturday.

That’s a far different explanation than the one Trump provided last July when he announced that Ratcliffe was withdrawing. Then, he said the Texan was “being treated very unfairly by the LameStream Media” and that Trump had told him it wasn’t worth “going through months of slander and libel.”

National security experts have complained that Ratcliffe lacks the deep intelligence knowledge or foreign affairs background held by previous spy chiefs such as Trump’s only permanent intel chief, Dan Coats, who spent a quarter-century in the Senate and also had a stint as ambassador to Germany. Coats resigned Aug. 15.

James Clapper, a leading Trump critic, was an Air Force general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency before President Barack Obama tapped him as the nation’s intelligence chief.

But Ratcliffe’s loyalty to Trump is unquestioned. Throughout the fall, as the impeachment saga played out, he defended Trump in hearings and on cable TV.

He emerged earlier last year during the Mueller hearings as one of Congress’ staunchest critics of the various probes into the president’s alleged misdeeds. And unlike more volatile and emotive colleagues such as Rep. Jim Jordan, Ratcliffe comes across as lawyerly, fact-based and controlled.

“Donald Trump is not above the law — he’s not,” he said during one hearing last year, tangling with the special counsel as a member of both the judiciary and intelligence committees. “But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law.”

Four days later, Trump picked Ratcliffe to be his next intelligence chief, and five days after that, Ratcliffe withdrew, saying, “I do not wish for a national security and intelligence debate surrounding my confirmation, however untrue, to become a purely political and partisan issue.”

It’s unclear how much senators’ regard for him may have risen in the seven months since then, though it seems unlikely that Trump would try to install Ratcliffe again without support from Senate Majority Mitch McConnell and a sense that the GOP-run Senate would give a friendlier reception this time.

“The last time this nomination was unsuccessfully put forward, serious bipartisan questions were raised about Rep. Ratcliffe’s background and qualifications,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee. “It’s hard for me to see how anything new has happened to change that.”

The chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., opposed Ratcliffe’s nomination last summer. Friday night, he issued a statement saying he looked forward to “ushering it through the Senate’s regular order,” meaning hearings and a vote — an implicit but unenthusiastic endorsement.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, Ratcliffe asserted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had decided to pursue impeachment because she “has become hostage to that progressive mob within the party.”

So, he said, as troubling as it is to see “folks in the Democratic Party advocating socialist values that are anathema to everything that has made America the greatest country in the history of the world for two and a half centuries, it’s a great opportunity for us. It’s an opportunity not just for President Trump to be reelected against that backdrop, but for us to gain control of the House again and really get great things done in the next four years.”

Pelosi on Friday accused Ratcliffe of showing “an unacceptable embrace of conspiracy theories and a clear disrespect and distrust of our law enforcement and intelligence patriots that disqualify him from leading America’s intelligence community.”

His “clear lack of qualifications and many misleading statements about his résumé” torpedoed his first nomination, she said. “The president is now ignoring these many serious outstanding concerns and letting politics, not patriotism, guide our national security.”

At an Oct. 17 rally in Dallas, Trump gave a generous shout-out to Ratcliffe, calling him “one of the best lawyers you’ll ever find. He’s slick, he’s smooth, but boy, he’s loyal, he’s, talented, and he’s got them all buffaloed because they’re not as good as him, John Ratcliffe.”

Ten days later, he brought Ratcliffe along to watch Game 5 of the World Series.

Supporters have insisted that Ratcliffe is well-suited for the post because of his legal and legislative experience and even-keel demeanor.

Last summer, former U.S. Attorney Matt Orwig, who hired Ratcliffe, called him “one of the smartest people I’ve ever known.”

“He’s very sensible,” said Orwig, a George W. Bush appointee and friend of Ratcliffe. “He listens to people. He’s reasoned. He makes decisions quickly and smartly, but never without information or details — just based on the facts.”

Ratcliffe’s rise in Congress has been swift.

In 2014, he defeated Hall in the GOP primary by arguing a need for fresh leadership. At 91, Hall was the oldest member of Congress at the time. He died a year ago at age 96.

Ratcliffe’s win made him only the fourth person to represent the district in a century, after Hall, Ray Roberts and the legendary former Speaker Sam Rayburn.

Ratcliffe, an Illinois native, came to Texas for law school at Southern Methodist University.

Before joining Congress, he served as mayor of Heath, on the shore of Lake Ray Hubbard. In the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas, he worked as anti-terrorism and national security coordinator and later as acting U.S. attorney.

Trump won the Ratcliffe’s U.S. House district in 2016 by more than 50 points, and the congressman votes with the president on nearly every issue.

Unlike Trump, Ratcliffe has not disputed that Russians meddled in the 2016 election. But on Fox News and other platforms, he has regularly sought to discredit investigations by alleging political bias at the FBI and elsewhere.

At the Mueller hearing, he accused the former special counsel of forcing Trump to prove his innocence, rather than starting with that presumption, by insisting that Mueller’s voluminous report did not exonerate the president. The report identified numerous instances of wrongdoing, but Mueller left it to Congress to decide whether a crime was committed and if so, how to proceed.

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