The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s hidden enablers are corrupting our country

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A major political battle is taking shape, and at its core is a key question: Can President Trump and his loyalists continue to organize large swaths of the government around the single, overarching goal of shielding his corruption, misconduct and wrongdoing from any and all accountability?

Trump’s effort to install Rep. John Ratcliffe as his new director of national intelligence appears to be running into trouble. New reports are casting doubt on some of the Texas Republican’s national security qualifications, and there are indications that Republican Senators might vote against confirming him.

But it seems to me that the real stakes in this battle are still poorly appreciated. At issue is whether Trump can take another large leap in the direction of corrupting our institutions to his own benefit with impunity.

Ratcliffe’s leading qualification for Trump appears to be that at former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s hearings, Ratcliffe lathered up great umbrage and conviction while spinning out Trump’s most lurid lies about the Russian attack on our election and efforts by law enforcement to get to the bottom of it.

At the hearings, Ratcliffe resorted to rhetorical trickery to downplay the severity of Mueller’s finding that Trump engaged in extensive and likely criminal efforts to impede that investigation. He also fed the conspiracy theory that Democrats were the real colluders with Russia and that the investigation was illegitimate, and asserted that unspecified “crimes” were committed by the Obama administration.

There is little doubt that these things are crucial to Trump’s decision to pick him. The man he would replace — outgoing Intelligence Director Daniel Coats — has been vocal in warning of another round of Russian interference. Coats has also clashed with the White House over his assessments of the damage done by Russian electoral sabotage in 2016.

NBC News now reports that Ratcliffe may have exaggerated his national security credentials. While Ratcliffe’s website claims that he put terrorists in prison as U.S. attorney for East Texas, NBC’s Ken Dilanian points out there is “no evidence he ever prosecuted a terrorism case.”

Meanwhile, The Post’s Philip Bump documents that Ratcliffe’s qualifications for the position are extraordinarily thin relative to previous occupants of it.

The Mueller hearings revealed Sean Hannity's outsized influence on Trump is also driving GOP members of Congress. Erik Wemple warns against this. (Video: The Washington Post)

But of course, for Trump, all this is beside the point. Ratcliffe has already passed what might be called the Fox News stage of the interview process — that is, the ability to enter the political/media arena and push Trump’s corrupt alt-narratives with maximum aggressiveness and shamelessness.

Indeed, the Daily Beast reports that Ratcliffe appears to have debuted the idea, since flatly debunked, that a “secret society” inside the intelligence services may have been trying to derail Trump’s candidacy.

And so, Ratcliffe has already demonstrated that he’s eminently qualified for the post, at least as Trump envisions it: Ratcliffe is willing to advocate at full throttle for the notion that the Russian attack on our democracy was not carried out to elect Trump and that the investigation into it was the real crime.

The Senate Intelligence Committee report

What makes this more galling is that a Senate Intelligence Committee report just found on a bipartisan basis that the Russian interference effort was substantially worse than we thought, and that if anything, there’s more reason for concern about the next round of sabotage.

The report declared that the intel committee sees as “credible” the assessment of Russian interference offered by U.S. intelligence services in early 2017 — an assessment that concluded that Russia interfered in the election to elect Trump president, as Mueller’s investigation found.

The Senate report also found that Russian hackers targeted election infrastructure in all 50 states. While the report did not find evidence that vote tallies were changed in 2016, it laid out scenarios in which interference could create chaos in 2020 — such as by tampering with voter registration data.

The report ominously suggested Russia “might have used its activity in 2016 to catalog options or clandestine actions, holding them for use at a later date.”

Ratcliffe, of course, disputes the core finding that Russia wanted to help elect Trump. And so, it is hard to imagine him taking it seriously if and when the Russian interference effort ramps up again — something that intelligence officials keep warning will happen, including the official that Ratcliffe would replace.

In this regard, it’s crucial to understand the Russian effort as not just an effort to undermine liberal democracy but also as an attack on Trump’s political adversaries. As Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg has persuasively argued, the Russian effort — which included not just socially divisive disinformation warfare but also massive cybertheft — was more destabilizing to the Democratic Party than most observers acknowledge.

All this is happening even as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) continues to refuse to allow Senate consideration of election security bills that would fortify our political system against another such attack.

Meanwhile, Attorney General William P. Barr is busily propping up Trump’s alt-narratives. Barr mounted an extraordinarily dishonest effort to downplay one of Mueller’s core findings — that Trump and his advisers eagerly hoped to benefit from, and worked extensively to coordinate with, the Russian interference effort.

And Barr is pursuing his own investigation of the investigators, another effort to airbrush out of existence the seriousness of what happened in 2016. As director of national intelligence, Ratcliffe would be in a position to assist with that effort.

David Rothkopf refers to McConnell, Barr and Ratcliffe as Trump’s “praetorian guard.” That is apt.

For the big project here is to basically make Trump’s extraordinary betrayal of the country disappear from public view entirely. If that makes another attack on our political system on Trump’s behalf more likely, well, perhaps that’s all to the better.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: Trump’s new intelligence pick could make Russian interference more likely

Michael Morell and Michael Vickers: Dan Coats is out. Should the Senate confirm John Ratcliffe?

The Post’s View: Will John Ratcliffe have the determination to speak the bald truth to Trump?

David Ignatius: Trump’s intelligence shake-up could be his most dangerous move yet

Michael Gerson: We should all miss Dan Coats’s calm competence