It remains to be seen whether John Ratcliffe would be as candid with President Donald Trump about Russia’s threat to U.S. democracy as his predecessor. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe, the president’s nominee for director of national intelligence, once worked with a leading Putin critic on the Magnitsky Act — which Russians have been pushing to overturn.
By NATASHA BERTRAND
07/29/2019 01:14 PM EDT
Updated 07/29/2019 03:14 PM EDT
President Donald Trump’s new pick to lead the country’s vast intelligence apparatus fell into favor with the White House as a longtime, vocal critic of the Russia investigation and the officials who launched it.
But John Ratcliffe, the congressman Trump has tapped to fight the “deep state” from within, has worked closely with one of the men Russian President Vladimir Putin wants most to see in prison: Bill Browder, an American-born businessman who has been on a decade-long campaign to expose Russian corruption.Story Continued Below
Ratcliffe, a third-term congressman, was chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security for the Eastern District of Texas and served as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas from 2007 to 2009. But he has no other intelligence experience aside from a recent appointment to the House Intelligence Committee.
Intelligence community sources have therefore been skeptical of Ratcliffe’s qualifications to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the government’s intelligence agencies, coordinates the country’s global information-gathering operation and frequently briefs the president on threats each morning.
They are also wary of Ratcliffe’s criticisms of the Russia probe, including his claims that former FBI Director James Comey should be investigated “for violating the Espionage Act” and that the Obama administration “committed crimes” while investigating Russia’s election interference.
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“There’s concern that a political crony of the president will squelch any evidence that the Russians are interfering in the 2020 election,” said Jeremy Bash, the former chief of staff at the Pentagon and CIA under President Barack Obama. “If the Russians interfere in 2020 to support Trump, can we count on an intelligence community led by Ratcliffe to call that out publicly? Or will that evidence be swept under the rug?”
It remains to be seen how Ratcliffe will approach the job if he’s confirmed, and whether he’ll be as candid with Trump about Russia’s threat to U.S. democracy as his predecessor, Dan Coats. Coats famously warned last year, just days after the Helsinki summit, that “the warning lights are blinking red again” and “the digital infrastructure that serves this country is literally under attack.”
Trump, who in defiance of his own national security advisers has repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by Russia, did not get along with the famously outspoken Coats.
But Ratcliffe’s work with Browder nearly a decade ago could represent a twist in the president’s desire to bring the intelligence community further under his control. Trump publicly undermined America’s national security establishment during a summit with Putin in Helsinki last summer, and has been famously reluctant to publicly accept the assessment from U.S. intelligence agencies that the Kremlin worked to elect him in 2016.
It also resurfaces one of the biggest subplots of the Russia probe: the Russians’ lobbying of Trump campaign officials to undermine Browder and undo the Magnitsky Act — a law passed in 2012 to punish those suspected of being involved in the death of Russian tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who uncovered a $230 million tax fraud scheme in 2008 on behalf of Browder’s investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital.
“Ratcliffe was one of our lawyers at Ashcroft dealing with the fallout from Magnitsky,” Browder told POLITICO on Monday, referring to the law firm former Attorney General John Ashcroft formed with Ratcliffe and another former U.S. attorney in 2009. Browder described Ratcliffe as “a highly sophisticated guy” with “no illusions about Russia” who is “professional, capable, and deserves respect.”
While he wouldn’t delve into the legal advice Ratcliffe gave him over the years, Browder seemed confident in the congressman’s bona fides. “All I can say is that he’s a top professional, highly trained, and understands what’s going on in Russia through the Magnitsky case.”
Another former Ashcroft employee who worked on the Magnitsky case corroborated Browder’s recollections, describing Ratcliffe as active and helpful on the issue.
In July 2009, Browder hired Ashcroft Sutton & Ratcliffe, which had been formed months earlier, to represent him in New York in a case that would quickly snowball into one of the biggest corruption scandals of Putin’s tenure, implicating high-level Kremlin officials and Putin allies.
Ratcliffe was one of Browder’s lawyers on the case that — with the help of Ashcroft’s lobbying firm — resulted in the passage of the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act in 2012.
Overturning the Magnitsky Act — which authorizes the president to deny visas to, and freeze the assets of, Russians believed to have been complicit in Magnitsky’s death and others suspected of human-rights abuses and corruption — has been one of Putin’s top foreign policy priorities.
Moscow retaliated immediately by blacklisting Americans and banning them from adopting Russian children. The campaign continued into 2016, when Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump campaign officials at Trump Tower to discuss changing so-called “adoption policy,” which is a veiled reference to the Magnitsky Act.
Putin, meanwhile, has been on his own crusade to undermine Browder. He has repeatedly tried to have him arrested via Interpol’s red notice system, and publicly accused him last year —without evidence — of funneling $400 million worth of illicit cash into Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“We have a solid reason to believe that some [U.S.] intelligence officers accompanied and guided these transactions,” Putin said. “So we have an interest of questioning them.”
Asked about Ratcliffe’s posture toward Russia and Putin, Browder suggested that Ratcliffe should be going into his new role with eyes wide open. “Anybody who’s ever worked on the Magnitsky case,” Browder said, “understands what an evil guy Putin is.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of terms Rep. John Ratcliffe has served in Congress. Ratcliffe is a third-term congressman.
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