East Texas U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe has been picked by President Donald Trump as his nominee for director of National Intelligence
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats will leave his position next month, Trump announced Sunday, capping a tumultuous relationship in which the two were often at odds over the wisdom of negotiating with Russia, the status of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and the severity of foreign threats to U.S. elections.
Trump said in a tweet that he would nominate Ratcliffe, R-Heath, a third-term congressman and prominent supporter of the president, to replace Coats. Ratcliffe launched a spirited defense of Trump on Wednesday, grilling former special counsel Robert Mueller about why he had investigated the president for possible obstruction of justice in his probe of Russian election interference.
Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas appointed by then-President George W. Bush, has represented the 4th Congressional District since 2015.
The district takes in all of Bowie, Cass, Camp, Titus, Marion and Morris counties plus the northern part of Upshur County, along with several other counties.
The Northeast Texas congressman also served eight years as mayor of Heath, a city that sits on the eastern shore of Lake Ray Hubbard and straddles Rockwall and Kaufman counties.
In November, Ratcliffe was announced as being on the short list of possible replacements for fired U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, though the position ultimately went to William Barr.
In an appearance Sunday on Fox News, Ratcliffe characterized Mueller’s report as an untrustworthy document written by aides and lawyers for Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department is investigating the origins of the probe, which also examined possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Mueller’s report “identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign” but found that “the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”
Trump called Ratcliffe a “highly respected Congressman” who “will lead and inspire greatness for the Country he loves.” He thanked Coats “for his great service to our Country.”
For months, Coats has understood that his relationship with Trump, which was never strong, had soured to the point that his departure was inevitable, according to a former senior intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. Coats had felt isolated and left out of important national security decision-making, the former official said.
Coats had publicly taken positions that put him at odds with Trump and didn’t hide that he was out of the loop.
In July 2018, while speaking at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, the intelligence chief infuriated White House officials when he said that if the president had asked for his advice, he would have told him not to meet privately with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their summit in Helsinki. The two leaders met with no American officials or Trump aides present.
Coats also didn’t hide his dismay when he learned, in the middle of an interview at the conference, that the White House had extended an invitation for Putin to visit Washington.
“That’s going to be special,” Coats said to the audience of a few hundred, who responded with laughter.
While in Helsinki, Trump sided with Putin against U.S. intelligence agencies, which had unanimously concluded that Russian intelligence operatives and their proxies interfered in the 2016 presidential campaign, with the goal of helping Trump.
Axios first reported Sunday that Coats’s departure was imminent and that Ratcliffe was likely to replace him.
From the moment Trump nominated Coats in January 2017, he struck many current and former officials as more of a caretaker in the position, a former senator from Indiana and ambassador to Germany who had been coaxed out of retirement to take one of the more challenging jobs in U.S. national security.
Coats regularly attends the president’s daily intelligence briefing session, along with CIA Director Gina Haspel and a senior U.S. intelligence official. But the day-to-day running of the intelligence community has fallen to Coats’s deputy, Sue Gordon, a career intelligence officer who is widely admired among the workforce and has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. While Coats’s successor awaits confirmation, Gordon would probably assume the duties of intelligence director on an acting basis.
It is unclear whether Ratcliffe would be confirmed in the Senate. He has no background in intelligence.
Previous intelligence directors have also not been career intelligence officers. But they have also not been such vocal political supporters of a president. Trump has repeatedly criticized the intelligence agencies as having tried to undermine his campaign and has accused, without evidence, former senior intelligence officials from the Obama administration of illegally spying on him.
Trump has given Attorney General William Barr unusual authority to investigate the intelligence agencies’ role in the probe of Russian election interference.
From the beginning of Coats’s tenure, he struck some observers as a risky choice. Coats was a well-known Russia hawk, which placed him on the same page with many in the intelligence community but put him crosswise with a president who ran on a promise to bring the United States closer to Russia and who consistently rejected the notion that the Kremlin had sought to help him get elected.
In the Senate, Coats had called on the Obama administration to penalize Russia after it invaded Ukraine and co-sponsored a Senate resolution condemning Russia’s use of force to annex Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. Russian officials responded by placing Coats on a shortlist of Americans whose travel to Russia would be restricted.
“While I’m disappointed that I won’t be able to go on vacation with my family to Siberia this summer, I am honored to be on this list,” Coats tweeted in response.
In January, Coats further emphasized the distance between him and Trump on a range of important national security issues, when he testified to Congress that North Korea was “unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons and production capabilities,” which the country’s leaders consider “critical to the regime’s survival.”
That assessment, which Coats said all intelligence agencies shared, undercut the president’s optimistic statements that a deal with North Korea was within reach, in large part thanks to the warm relationship Trump said he was forging with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
Coats also shared the intelligence agencies’ assessment that Iran was still in compliance with an international agreement not to produce nuclear weapons, a deal the president pulled out of.