Trump’s Polarizing Pick for Spy Chief Has Tough Path in Senate

Steven T. Dennis

(Bloomberg) -- Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats won 85 Senate votes when he was confirmed early in Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump’s choice to replace Coats, Representative John Ratcliffe, probably will have to rely exclusively on Republican votes -- and even that could be a challenge.

Republican senators have been unusually silent on Ratcliffe after Trump announced he intends to nominate him to replace Coats, a former Indiana senator who maintained close relationships with members of both parties and was known for contradicting the president’s stance on issues including North Korea’s willingness to disarm and Russia’s election interference.

Ratcliffe, who tore into former Special Counsel Robert Mueller at a House hearing last week, has said he agrees with Trump’s characterization of the two-year probe into the 2016 election as a “witch hunt,” saying the discussion of Russian influence “was really a way to invalidate his election.”

After Trump announced Coats’ departure and his choice for a replacement on Sunday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell released a lengthy statement bemoaning the departure of his longtime Senate colleague. He lauded the intelligence chief’s work safeguarding elections against Russian meddling and emphasized the need for U.S. intelligence agencies to be free of political bias to “deliver unvarnished hard truths” to the nation’s leaders.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican, also praised Coats effusively, saying he did “a great deal to direct our attention toward growing aggression from Russia, China and Iran.” Burr said in a statement Monday that he called Ratcliffe to congratulate him, adding, “When the White House submits its official nomination to the Senate Intelligence Committee, we will work to move it swiftly through regular order.”

Other senior Republican senators including Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Intelligence Committee, also praised Coats’ service without commenting on Ratcliffe, a Texas House member and former U.S. attorney with one of the most conservative voting records in Congress.

Ratcliffe did have one strong early backer, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

“Congressman Ratcliffe will be a worthy successor and has my full support,” said Graham, the Senate Judiciary chairman who has become one of Trump’s chief allies in Congress. “He understands the only way America can be safe is to be strong.”

Spotlight on Collins

If Trump sends Ratcliffe’s nomination to the Senate, one Republican in particular will face pressure from both sides: Susan Collins of Maine, who has fashioned herself as an independent-minded senator. But her votes in favor of Trump nominees has caused her poll ratings to plummet in her home state, and she faces a tough re-election fight next year.

“I don’t know Representative John Ratcliffe at all,” Collins said in a statement Monday, adding that when his nomination is submitted, the Intelligence Committee “will thoroughly consider his nomination and hold a public hearing.”

Collins sits on the Intelligence panel, which has eight Republicans and seven Democrats. If the Democrats all stick together and a single Republican opposes Ratcliffe, McConnell would have to maneuver to discharge the nomination with a negative recommendation -- something unprecedented for the post.

“We need an independent voice in that position,” said GOP Senator John Thune of South Dakota, asked whether he was concerned that Ratcliffe agreed that Trump had been subjected to a “witch hunt.” He added, “I’m sure that will be part of the questioning when he’s up here for confirmation.”

Senator John Cornyn of Texas, also a member of the Intelligence Committee, said he’s known Ratcliffe for a long time and will support the nomination.

“I have confidence that John understands the difference between being a member of Congress” and national intelligence director, Cornyn said, highlighting the nonpartisan nature of the job.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer indicated that Democrats will put up a fight.

“It’s clear Rep. Ratcliffe was selected because he exhibited blind loyalty to @realDonaldTrump with his demagogic questioning of Mueller,” Schumer tweeted. “If Senate Republicans elevate such a partisan player to a position requiring intelligence expertise & non-partisanship, it’d be a big mistake.”

Defeating the nomination on the floor would require four Republican senators to join every Democrat. Few Republicans these days are willing to cross Trump, however, given his strong standing among the party’s base.

Political Question

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who served with Ratcliffe in the House, dismissed concerns about Ratcliffe being a purely political pick by Trump.

“I remember people said I’d be too political to be the CIA director,” Pompeo said in remarks Monday at the Economic Club of Washington. He said he felt confident that he dispelled such criticism.

“He’s very smart,” Pompeo, who also was a staunchly conservative House member before Trump picked him to head the CIA and then the State Department, said of Ratcliffe. “I’m very confident he’d do a good job.”

Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have called for investigating their contention that during the Obama administration anti-Trump forces in the FBI, Justice Department and the intelligence agencies worked with Democrats to concoct the theory that Trump’s 2016 campaign worked with Russia on election meddling aimed at helping him win.

“That’s why the president gets so upset by that and why he uses the term ‘hoax’ or ‘witch hunt,” Ratcliffe said in an interview with Fox News after Mueller testified to two House panels. “He’s saying that the Russian interference didn’t have anything to do with him or influence his success in the 2016 election, and he’s right.”

Ratcliffe, 53, has been a key member of a Republican-led House task force pursuing the theory that anti-Trump bias and support for Democrat Hillary Clinton tainted the Russia probe early on. He previously attacked then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over the investigation.

“If you set out to create an appearance of bias, or prejudice, or impropriety, or conflict of interest, the only way you could do a better job of doing it is pick this team and then have them wear their ‘I’m with her’ t-shirts to work every day,” Ratcliffe told Rosenstein during a Judiciary Committee hearing. Attorney General William Barr is conducting an investigation into what he’s called possible “spying” on the Trump campaign.

Ratcliffe was mayor of Heath, Texas -- population 7,329 in 2010, according to the Census Bureau -- from 2004 to 2012. He was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas under President George W. Bush. He founded the Austin office of the Ashcroft Group, a collection of law firms headed by former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Since 2015, Ratcliffe has been a member of the U.S. House, representing a sprawling district in the northeast corner of Texas that includes all or parts of 18 counties along the bor­der with Oklahoma.

(Updates with senators’ comments starting in the ninth paragraph)

--With assistance from Billy House and Laura Litvan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steven T. Dennis in Washington at sdennis17@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert

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