In January, the nation’s intelligence chiefs sat before the Senate Intelligence Committee and publicly contradicted President Donald Trump on everything from Iran to Russia to North Korea.
At their head was the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, a longtime Republican politician and diplomat widely seen as a champion of the career professionals within the intelligence community.
“We do not believe Iran is currently undertaking activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device,” Coats said, for example, sharply contrasting with Trump’s rhetoric on Iran just months before the U.S. withdrew from its nuclear agreement with that country.
“We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons,” Coats said at another point in the hearing. Trump had met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore the previous June, tweeting afterward that “[t]here is no longer a Nuclear Threat [sic] from North Korea.”
Coats willingness to contradict the president’s political spin aligned with the U.S. Intelligence Community’s mission of providing policymakers with “distinctive, timely insights with clarity, objectivity, and independence.”
With Coats tendering his resignation Sunday, that mission could now face one of its gravest challenges.
In a tweet Sunday, Trump announced that he will nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) to replace Coats. Ratcliffe has been a strident supporter of the president, most recently at a hearing with former special counsel Robert Mueller last week in which the Texas congressman alleged that part of Mueller’s final report “was not authorized under the law to be written.”
During the hearing with Mueller last week, Ratcliffe repeated claims by Trump that Russia colluded with the Clinton campaign in order to push an anti-Trump agenda through the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He also called Mueller’s team “Hillary Clinton’s de facto legal team.”
“I agree with the chairman this morning when he said Donald Trump is not above the law,” Ratcliffe said during the hearing. “He’s not. But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law.”
Coats, by contrast, reportedly clashed with the White House over a secret report on Russian interference in the 2018 midterm election in recent months.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the powerful head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday that his committee will take up any nomination by the president quickly “through regular order.” But Burr has expressed private misgivings about the choice of Ratcliffe, according to The New York Times.
In a statement Sunday, Ratcliffe said that if confirmed he will “work on behalf of all the public servants who are tirelessly devoted to defending the security and safety of the United States.” But critics worry that Coats’ departure, and Ratcliffe’s nomination, will allow Trump to further consolidate his power, surrounding himself with loyalists who will toe the party line.
Indeed, the rate of turnover among Trump’s most senior advisors, which includes the director of national intelligence, has been around 75% since he took office, according to The Brookings Institution.
Many of those departures — like that of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former secretary of state Rex Tillerson — have been ideological, with Trump openly airing displeasure with officials he did not view as sufficiently loyal to his policy agenda or to him personally.
The Ratcliffe nomination creates the potential for basic government functions to become politicized, which according to Sen. Angus King (I-ME), who sits on the Intelligence Committee, is especially troubling for someone in the role of Director of National Intelligence.
The role was created after 9/11 to make sure the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies share information among themselves and get that information into the hands of the appropriate policymakers.
“This isn’t like secretary of state or secretary of defense,” King told The New York Times. “This is a fact job.”