We all know why Ratcliffe was picked, and it’s not because he has served on the House Intelligence Committee for six whole months. It’s because Donald Trump saw him on TV yelling about how the Russia investigation was a big witch hunt.
And it’s the issue of Russia that makes his nomination particularly disturbing.
That six months on the Intelligence Committee, and some time in a U.S. attorney’s office working on terrorism, give Ratcliffe more preparation for his new job than many Trump appointees had before taking theirs. In fact, this president has been uniquely bad at picking key personnel, most visibly in his Cabinet. They’ve turned over at extraordinary rates and been beset by stories of scandal and incompetence, most likely because in so many cases Trump never bothered to find qualified people in the first place.
How bad has it been? The Brookings Institution examined a list of 65 “A Team” positions in the White House and federal agencies, and found that 49 of them, or 75 percent, have already seen at least one official come and go, just 2½ years into Trump’s presidency. In 16 of those cases the position has been held by three or more people.
Trump has already lost nine Cabinet-level officials, a number that will probably rise before the end of his term. As a point of comparison, in his first three years, Ronald Reagan saw five of his Cabinet officials depart. For George H.W. Bush, the number was also five; for Bill Clinton it was three; for George W. Bush it was two; and for Barack Obama it was also two.
This is partly because of the difficulty of working with Trump; a number of officials have simply found it intolerable and moved on, their reputations battered. But the more important factor is that Trump makes such terrible choices in the first place. In fact, in Trump’s initial Cabinet the only person who had substantial direct experience with the agency he was assuming control of was Jim Mattis, Trump’s first secretary of defense.
Like most business executives who run for office, Trump claimed that instead of hiring a bunch of cronies and hidebound bureaucrats like ordinary politicians do, he’d use his business smarts to bring in innovative thinkers and super-competent personnel who would whip government into shape.
Instead, Trump has hired the most embarrassing collection of family members, grifters, incompetents and fools to have been assembled in a single administration in living memory, people such as the corrupt and criminal Michael Flynn, the small-time swindlers Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, the grandiose ideologue Stephen K. Bannon, or the multiple officials accused of domestic abuse. Or Jared.
But some nominations that Trump makes to allay his insecurities — like finding a director of national intelligence by watching Fox to see which Republican congressmen will offer the angriest dismissal of everything we know to be true about Russia and 2016 — are particularly dangerous.
Why Coats is getting pushed out
Like Mattis, Coats had a tense relationship with Trump that eventually became untenable; what they had in common was that both seemed to take their jobs seriously. They were also both unable to offer Trump the kind of performative and substantive sycophancy he so desperately needs. As numerous reports have detailed, Coats’s insistence that Russia is a threat to the United States angered Trump and the White House.
On the other hand, Ratcliffe has made clear his belief that the only thing about Russia and 2016 that is worth investigating is whether the Kremlin was actually in cahoots with Hillary Clinton.
Contemplate for a moment what that means. Every serious person even remotely connected to the world of intelligence understands that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump get elected and as part of Vladimir Putin’s larger project to discredit Western democracy. Yet the person Trump wants to put in charge of America’s intelligence apparatus — it remains to be seen if he’ll be confirmed by the Senate — is determined to downplay and deny those obvious facts.
This is happening at the same time as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is determined to quash any effort to harden the American electoral system against Russian cyberattacks.
What happens when new intelligence comes in suggesting that Russia is once again going after the American election system? Is John Ratcliffe going to rush to the White House to insist to Trump that something has to be done? Or are the two men going to agree that Putin’s intentions are pure and it’s all a bunch of fake news?
We can already guess the answer to this — it’s the latter. Indeed, that’s why Trump wants to hire him.