The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s pick for national intelligence director is disengaged from committee work on Capitol Hill, officials say

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) questions former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Capitol Hill last week.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) questions former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on Capitol Hill last week. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

President Trump’s nominee to be the nation’s next spy chief is regarded as a relatively disengaged member of the House Intelligence Committee and is little known across the ranks of spy agencies he has been tapped to lead, according to interviews with congressional and intelligence officials.

Though Rep. John Ratcliffe’s membership on the House committee is perhaps his most important credential for the top intelligence job, officials said he has yet to take part in one of its overseas trips to learn more about spy agencies’ work. The other new lawmakers on the panel have done so or are scheduled to travel in the coming months.

It is also unclear whether Ratcliffe (R-Tex) has spent much time at the headquarters of the CIA, the National Security Agency or other parts of the sprawling U.S. intelligence community that he has been nominated to direct.

Before his nomination, he made at least one trip to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in suburban Virginia. One of the most common reactions across those agencies when Ratcliffe’s nomination was announced, officials said, was: “Who?”

Ratcliffe, Trump’s pick to lead U.S. intelligence, faces head winds in Congress

Several U.S. intelligence officials said Ratcliffe first came to their attention last week when he grilled former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III on his handling of the investigation of Russian election interference and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.

Congressional officials said that the House Intelligence Committee has completed a dozen trips for its members this year, though most on the panel have taken part in only a few. The trips are “the bread and butter of committee business and oversight,” said one congressional official, describing travel that usually enables members to meet with the CIA’s top operatives in foreign capitals as well as representatives in foreign governments.

They often involve travel to war zones, including Afghanistan, or other areas of high national security interest to the United States. Several members, including Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), recently returned from a trip to Colombia and Panama, where members went to border crossings used by drug smugglers and met with senior U.S. intelligence officials and other officials involved in interdiction measures.

CBS News first reported Ratcliffe’s lack of foreign travel with the committee.

Ratcliffe did take part in a delegation arranged by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) in April. That trip took Ratcliffe and others to the Colombian border with Venezuela, the scene of a major foreign policy crisis, and he was asked to go because of his position on the intelligence committee, Ratcliffe’s spokeswoman said.

Others who joined the committee this year with Ratcliffe have made impressions on other members with their efforts to get up to speed on the complex issues and overlapping agencies the panel is responsible for overseeing.

Rep. Sean Maloney (D-N.Y.), for example, has taken part in at least four foreign trips sponsored by the Intelligence Committee in 2019, congressional officials said. Maloney, who worked as a senior adviser in the Clinton White House, was also described as an avid participant in Intelligence Committee hearings and a weekly visitor to the secure room where members can read classified reports and investigative documents provided by the CIA and other spy agencies.

Ratcliffe, by contrast, was described as an infrequent visitor to the classified “reading room” and a member known for brief appearances at the weekly business meetings and hearings that the panel often conducts behind closed doors.

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), another new member of the committee, took part in a recent congressional trip to Europe during which panel members visited officials from NATO. She also participated in a visit to the National Counterterrorism Center in May.

Ratcliffe’s apparent low level of engagement is not likely to be seen as disqualifying by Trump, who is known for his own short attention span during intelligence briefings and his denunciations of the work of the CIA and other agencies.

Trump reportedly skipped numerous intelligence briefings in the months after the 2016 election — a period during which previous presidents-elect had often sought to become thoroughly grounded in classified reports on global trouble spots.

The daily intelligence briefing has been a fixture on Trump’s schedule since taking office, but officials with knowledge of the sessions have said that he prefers pictures and charts to written assessments and often strays into other subject areas when his attention wanes.

Trump also made it clear in impromptu remarks last week that his priority for a new director of national intelligence is to subdue agencies that have often contradicted his claims about national security threats emanating from Iran, North Korea and elsewhere.

Defending his nominee, Trump said he expected Ratcliffe to “rein in” spy agencies that “have run amok.”

The House and Senate intelligence committees for decades were treated as relatively nonpartisan enclaves of oversight because of the sensitivity of the issues they cover and a desire to put national interests ahead political interests.

That dynamic has changed substantially in recent years, especially as both panels took on investigations of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential race, a subject of intense sensitivity to Trump.

The president’s main ally on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), has used the position to wage an effort to discredit the CIA, FBI and Office of Special Counsel investigations of Russian interference and potential ties to the Trump campaign.

Nunes was known for similarly limited engagement with the substance of intelligence oversight during his early tenure. The panel at the time was led by then-Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), who at one point threatened to cut off Nunes’s travel budget if he did not spend more time reading classified files important to the panel’s work.

Thursday on Capitol Hill, two key senators sounded skeptical about Ratcliffe’s prospects to win confirmation.

Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters that he would reserve judgment until the White House formally nominates Ratcliffe.

“When he’s nominated and we do an investigation, I’ll be happy to comment on what I think his qualifications are,” Burr said.

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the committee’s vice chair, said that Ratcliffe had less experience than any previous nominee for the position and that he was troubled by reports that Ratcliffe had exaggerated his involvement in terrorism cases when he was a federal prosecutor in Texas.

“I want to give Mr. Ratcliffe the chance to explain himself,” Warner said. “If this guy has even had to take that very thin résumé and pad it, that would be clearly disqualifying.”

Julie Tate and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.