© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Key Senators So Far Silent On John Ratcliffe, Trump's Pick For New Top Spy

Rep. John Ratcliffe, President Trump's nominee for the next director of national intelligence, listens as former special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill last week.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds
AFP/Getty Images
Rep. John Ratcliffe, President Trump's nominee for the next director of national intelligence, listens as former special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill last week.

Updated 1:35 p.m. ET

Rep. John Ratcliffe is President Trump's choice to become the next top leader of the U.S. intelligence community.

The Texas Republican thanked Trump on Twitter following the president's earlier announcement, also on Twitter, that Ratcliffe is his nominee to replace outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.

Coats and Trump haven't been simpatico from the beginning, and the White House has been telling journalists for weeks that the president wants somebody else.

If the transition isn't a surprise, however, the choice of Ratcliffe might be — and some key senators have yet to state one way or another how they feel about the nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., didn't mention Ratcliffe in a statement on Sunday that praised Coats but that also emphasized what McConnell called the need for a president to get candid advice.

"The U.S. intelligence community works best when it is led by professionals who protect its work from political or analytical bias and who deliver unvarnished hard truths to political leaders in both the executive and legislative branches," McConnell said. "Very often the news these briefings bring is unpleasant, but it is essential that we be confronted with the facts."

One question raised by McConnell's statement: Would Ratcliffe be so much of a loyalist that he would tell Trump only what he wanted to hear — and Congress and the public what Trump wanted them to hear? Or could he be the honest manager that the Senate majority leader says is needed?

Republicans control the Senate and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which would consider Ratcliffe's nomination before the full body voted to confirm him.

That's if Trump formally submits the congressman's name.

In the past, Trump has sometimes said he intends to nominate someone for a post but then has never actually transmitted the person's name to the Senate.

That's what happened, for example, when Trump nominated economics commentator Stephen Moore and former pizza magnate Herman Cain to the board of the Federal Reserve. Ultimately, senators were spared the need to actually assess or cast votes on them.

North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, said in a statement Monday that he spoke with Ratcliffe over the weekend "to congratulate him" on the nomination.

Continued Burr: "When the White House submits its official nomination to the Senate intelligence committee, we will work to move it swiftly through regular order."

Other members of the panel have so far been silent on Ratcliffe's nomination.

Coats, a long-serving former member of Congress, was well known to many lawmakers and was confirmed in early 2017 by a vote of 85 to 12. At the same time, the Senate has considered and endorsed a close-call nominee of Trump's before — CIA Director Gina Haspel.

She was controversial because of her role in President George W. Bush's terrorist interrogation program, but she also was a career officer with deep experience inside the agency.

Ratcliffe sits today on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence but had little intelligence or foreign affairs experience before that, as some commentators observed after Trump's announcement.

Democrats faulted what they called Trump's bid to fill an important role with what they called a flunky and another "television character."

Trump vs. the spooks

Trump, Coats and the leaders of the intelligence community have endured uncomfortable stretches for as long as Trump has been in office.

The spy bosses assessed that North Korea is unlikely to surrender its nuclear weapons, for example, even though Trump has made much of his personal rapport with the country's leader, Kim Jong Un.

The leaders of the intelligence and national defense establishment told Congress that Iran was abiding by its commitments under the nuclear deal, but Trump sought to abrogate it and went ahead with withdrawing the United States.

And Coats and the other leaders of the intelligence community also continued their focus on foreign election interference in parallel with the investigation by then-special counsel Robert Mueller into Russia's attack on the 2016 election.

Trump goes back and forth as to what he accepts about foreign interference generally and Russia's role specifically in the 2016 election.

Agency leaders reportedly have been told, however, not to mention the topic to Trump and to keep their discussions of it "below his level."

The news on Sunday about Coats' departure and Ratcliffe's nomination followed an earlier announcement by Coats that he was appointing a new election security czar within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and was directing the other agencies within the intelligence community to do the same.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.