Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas was first elected to Congress in 2014. | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo
President Donald Trump on Sunday announced that he was nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be the director of national intelligence, replacing Dan Coats, who will leave the position on Aug. 15.
“A former U.S. Attorney, John will lead and inspire greatness for the Country he loves,” the president wrote on Twitter.Story Continued Below
The director of national intelligence oversees the government’s intelligence agencies, coordinates the country’s global information-gathering operation and frequently briefs the president on threats each morning.
Coats submitted his letter of resignation Sunday. In it, he thanked the president for the opportunity to lead the intelligence community and listed some of his accomplishments during his tenure — including his establishment of an election security executive.
“The Intelligence Community is stronger than ever, and increasingly well prepared to meet new challenges and opportunities,” he wrote. “As we have previously discussed, I believe it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life.”
Coats, a former senator from Indiana, came out of retirement to serve Trump, bringing stability to the national security establishment amid unprecedented friction between the intelligence community and the then-incoming president who routinely dismissed their work and often cast doubt on the official assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to aid his candidacy.
He stepped into the role in March 2017, but how long Coats would remain was a constant source of speculation because of his many differences with Trump over foreign policy. Coats has publicly broken with the president on several critical fronts, including during public testimony before the Senate on North Korea, Iran and Syria.
Earlier this year, Coats told a Senate panel that North Korea was not likely to give up its nuclear weapons, Iran was not yet seeking a nuclear weapon and the Islamic State terrorist group remained a forceful presence in Iraq and Syria.
Coats’ departure is perhaps the biggest for the administration‘s defense/national security team since the abrupt resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last December. He left the administration amid mounting policy differences with Trump over his national security goals and the president’s treatment of U.S. allies. The day after Mattis said he was leaving, Coats praised the Defense secretary and said he was “deeply saddened” by his resignation.
Last week, Trump spoke with the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence, Rep. Devin Nunes (D-Calif.), about potential replacements for Coats, signaling the intelligence chief’s imminent departure.
Ratcliffe, a three-term congressman, met privately with Trump at the White House on July 19 to discuss his interest in the job, The New York Times reported, citing unidentified administration officials.
By choosing Ratcliffe, Trump has tapped a Republican who as recently as last week stood up for him on one of the biggest stages of his presidency during the Robert Mueller hearings.
In fact, Judiciary Committee Republicans gave Ratcliffe an early chance to question the former special counsel next after the panel’s ranking member by skipping over several more senior members.
The Texas congressman, a former federal prosecutor in the George W. Bush administration, used his five minutes to launch right into a sharply worded exchange with Mueller over the special counsel’s final report and a widely cited statement in it that Trump was not exonerated for potential obstruction of justice crimes.
“Can you give me an example, other than Donald Trump, where the Justice Department determines that an investigated person was not exonerated because their innocence was not conclusively determined?” Ratcliffe asked.
“I cannot, but this is a unique situation,” Mueller replied.
Ratcliffe followed up with a lengthy statement on the first part of Mueller’s answer.
“Let’s just leave it at, you can’t find it because, I’ll tell you why: It doesn’t exist,” he said. “The special counsel’s job — nowhere does it say that you were to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence, or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him. It’s not in any of the documents. It’s not in your appointment order. It’s not in the special counsel regulations. It’s not in the [Office of Legal Counsel] opinions. It’s not in the Justice Manual. And it’s not in the Principles of Federal Prosecution. Nowhere do those words appear together because, respectfully, respectfully, Director, it was not the special counsel’s job to conclusively determine Donald Trump’s innocence or to exonerate him.”
Ratcliffe then went after Mueller for devoting an entire volume of his report to the obstruction investigation into the president without making a final decision on whether to charge Trump with any crimes.
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“You wrote 180 pages, 180 pages about decisions that weren’t reached, about potential crimes that weren’t charged or decided,” he said. “And respectfully, respectfully, by doing that you managed to violate every principle in the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extra-prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that aren’t charged.”
Ratcliffe complained that the obstruction volume of Mueller’s report “was not authorized under the law to be written. It was written to a legal standard that does not exist at the Justice Department. And it was written in violation of every DOJ principle about extra-prosecutorial commentary.”
“I agree with the chairman this morning when he said, ‘Donald Trump is not above the law,’” Ratcliffe added, citing Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.). “He’s not. But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where Volume 2 of this report puts him.”
Mueller didn’t get a chance to reply to Ratcliffe — instead the tightly controlled hearing shifted to another Democratic member’s line of questioning.
After Trump’s announcement, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer took to Twitter to condemn Ratcliffe’s nomination, calling it a “big mistake.”
“It’s clear Rep. Ratcliffe was selected because he exhibited blind loyalty to @realDonaldTrump with his demagogic questioning of Mueller,” the the New York Democrat wrote. “If Senate Republicans elevate such a partisan player to a position requiring intelligence expertise & non-partisanship, it’d be a big mistake.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren also was critical.
“From day one, Trump has made his disdain for the intelligence community clear,” the Democratic presidential candidate wrote on Twitter. “Our Director of National Intelligence should be above partisan politics, speak truth to power, and resist Trump’s abuses of authority. John Ratcliffe doesn’t fit that bill.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Coats’ departure “is bad news for the security of America,” and that his successor must “remember that his oath is to protect the Constitution and the American people, not the President.”
Republican lawmakers, including Reps. Mark Meadows (North Carolina), Jim Jordan (Ohio) and Nunes, lauded Trump’s choice of Ratcliffe. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (California) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (South Carolina) also expressed their support and confidence in Ratcliffe.
“I am very proud of and appreciative of the service Dan Coats rendered to our nation as DNI. He provided President @realDonaldTrump with seasoned and well thought out national security advice in a dangerous world,” Graham wrote on Twitter.
“Dan also provided much needed coordination for our intelligence community and always had their back,” he continued. “Congressman Ratcliffe will be a worthy successor and has my full support. He understands the only way America can be safe is to be strong.”
Martin Matishak contributed to this report.
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