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Trump again nominates Rep. John Ratcliffe to be director of national intelligence

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) speaks Feb. 27, 2020, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) speaks Feb. 27, 2020, at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. (Alex Wong/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump announced Friday that he would nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe as the next director of national intelligence, turning to a vocal political ally after dismissing his previous acting intelligence director amid new questions of election interference by Russia.

In a tweet, Trump called Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) “an outstanding man of great talent” whom he had hoped officially to nominate last year.

“Would have completed process earlier, but John wanted to wait until after IG Report was finished,” Trump said, an apparent reference to an inspector general’s report scrutinizing the FBI investigation of Trump’s 2016 campaign and whether it was coordinating with Russians to influence the outcome of the last presidential election.

Trump sought to nominate Ratcliffe in July after his first intelligence director, Daniel Coats, left the administration. But the former U.S. attorney encountered stiff resistance in Congress, where lawmakers raised questions about his credentials and whether he had padded his résumé.

Ratcliffe withdraws from consideration for intelligence chief less than a week after Trump picked him

It was not clear that Ratcliffe would fare any better the second time. Not only did he face opposition from Democrats last summer, but key Senate Republicans also were not enthusiastic about his nomination and signaled that the White House should withdraw it.

After Trump put Ratcliffe forward last year, it emerged that he had overstated his experience as a federal prosecutor in eastern Texas, claiming to have put terrorists behind bars when there were no significant terrorism prosecutions in that district while he was the U.S. attorney there.

“We look forward to working with Representative Ratcliffe as the nomination process progresses,” a spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said Friday evening.

Congressional and intelligence officials have said Ratcliffe is a relatively disengaged member of the House Intelligence Committee and was not well known among the intelligence agencies.

Trump, however, does not see Ratcliffe’s lack of experience as disqualifying. When he first proposed the congressman last July, he said he hoped he would “rein in” U.S. intelligence agencies that had “run amok.” Trump has long feuded with the intelligence community and accused current and former officials of trying to undermine him, when he was a candidate and in the presidency.

Trump to name Richard Grenell, U.S. ambassador to Germany, as acting head of intelligence

After Ratcliffe’s nomination flamed out, Trump installed Joseph Maguire, a retired admiral and then director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as the acting intelligence director. Maguire was quickly enmeshed in controversy over a whistleblower complaint submitted to his office that became the grounds for Trump’s impeachment.

Ratcliffe was among Trump’s most prominent defenders during the Senate impeachment trial.

Last week, Trump dismissed Maguire, replacing him with another loyalist, Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Trump was angry at Maguire after a member of his staff briefed lawmakers that Russia had “developed a preference” for Trump in the 2020 election.

It is unclear how Ratcliffe would overcome the criticism that doomed his previous nomination.

“The last time this nomination was unsuccessfully put forward, serious bipartisan questions were raised about Rep. Ratcliffe’s background and qualifications,” Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a tweet. That committee would vet Ratcliffe’s nomination. “It’s hard for me to see how anything new has happened to change that,” Warner added.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), did not immediately signal his support.

“As I’ve said before, however, there is no substitute for having a permanent, Senate-confirmed Director of National Intelligence in place to lead our [intelligence community]. I look forward to receiving Congressman Ratcliffe’s official nomination and ushering it through the Senate’s regular order,” Burr said.

As long as Ratcliffe’s nomination is pending in the Senate, Grenell can remain as the acting intelligence director. By law, Trump had to nominate a permanent director by March 11. But in picking Ratcliffe, he stopped the clock. And if Ratcliffe’s nomination were to fail, Grenell could continue serving on an acting basis for up to seven more months.

In the intricacies of vacancy law, some saw a White House strategy. Ratcliffe is not a popular pick, but if the Senate rejects him, lawmakers will have to contend with Grenell, who as the acting director is harder to check and oversee, current and former officials said. Trump could be trying to call the Senate’s bluff, they said.

Grenell has said publicly that he does not intend to serve long in the acting position. Were he to withdraw, Trump could appoint another acting director in his place.

“The Vacancies Reform Act was not written with our current situation in mind,” said Liz Hempowicz, the public policy director at Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. “It is riddled with loopholes exactly like this. It’s really on Congress to fix it. It’s absurd.”

Bobby Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin, called the situation as a “win-win” for the president but a “loss-loss for the rest of us.”