Thursday’s Senate appointed Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe as National Intelligence Chief, appointing a new security department leader of the country at a period when President Donald Trump has removed several officials.
Ratcliffe looked impossible to get the spot when he was nominated in February, because he was already named for the role last year and then resigned after Republicans challenged his qualifications. Yet senators warmed him when they were concerned about instability in Trump’s intelligence community and needed a stable, authorized head.
The Texas Republican will remove the new acting chief, Richard Grenell, who has handled much of the staffing adjustments. Since clashing with Trump the last Senate-confirmed head, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, quit the position last year.
Democrats allowed a speedy vote this week on the nomination, dropping their usual procedural delays in a signal that they prefer Ratcliffe to Grenell. Yet several Democrats also rejected his appointment, rendering Ratcliffe the first DNI to struggle to gain strong bipartisan approval since the job was first established in 2005. Voting was 49-44.
During his confirmation hearing, Ratcliffe sought to distance himself from the president, even by stating that he agreed Russia intervened with the 2016 presidential election, a statement Trump rejected. He said he should transmit the conclusions of the intelligence community to Trump even though he thought Trump was in conflict with them and could shoot him.
Again, despite the president’s obvious propensity to politicize intelligence and turn security services to his will, the job holds particular challenges. Trump has repeatedly dismissed conclusions by the security community at variance with his own point of view, even on Russia’s involvement.
Trump has already made himself keen to help security officials study issues he believes would benefit his political interests, with authorities currently seeking to decide if the coronavirus pandemic has originated in a Chinese laboratory or from a business.
However, the DNI is under intense political pressure , particularly from Congressional Republicans, to declassify and make available knowledge from Russia’s probe that Trump supporters expect to cast top Obama administration officials — like former vice president and critic Joe Biden in 2020—in a unfavorable light.
For instance, last week, Senate Republicans published a recently declassified list of senior government officers who demanded an American name from government records that turned out to be Michael Flynn, the senior Trump administration national security advisor. Republicans published a January 2017 memo on Tuesday that Susan Rice, the National Security Adviser for President Barack Obama, wrote to herself detailing a confidential discussion about Flynn and his Russian connections that she had engaged in with Obama and then FBI Chief James Comey earlier that month.
And there have been demands from Democrats, including Flynn’s own counsel, to disclose declassified excerpts of recorded phone calls between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition time. Flynn pled guilty to lying regarding certain conversations to the FBI, but the Department of Justice has now sought to drop the case. In his new job, Ratcliffe could face demands to make this knowledge public.
“No lawyer for Flynn has ever seen it or heard the recording” of the statement, Sidney Powell, Flynn’s prosecutor, said in an email to The Associated Press. “I would want both.”