There is so much alarming news in the world that it’s easy to lose sight of the president’s slow-motion assault on American democracy. Case in point: On Friday evening, following the worst week for the stock market since 2008, Trump announced that he would be nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) as director of national intelligence (DNI). This is a jaw-dropping decision because Trump had already announced and withdrawn Ratcliffe’s nomination last summer in the face of bipartisan resistance.

Critics pointed out that Ratcliffe lacked the “extensive national security expertise” that is a statutory requirement for the job. As The Post notes: “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.”

Trump had chosen Ratcliffe not because he knew anything about intelligence but because he had shown himself to be a slavishly loyal defender of the president with no regard for the truth or the Constitution. Ratcliffe had distinguished himself, if that’s the word, with his obnoxious and insulting interrogation of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in July, followed by his shameless defense of Trump during the impeachment hearings.

Ratcliffe was one of those Republicans who pretended that Trump had done nothing wrong by trying to extort Ukraine into helping him politically. During one hearing, he asked State Department officials George Kent and William Taylor: “Where is the impeachable offense?” Taylor attempted to respond that they were there as fact witnesses, not to judge whether the president’s conduct warranted impeachment, but Ratcliffe cut him off, saying “I’ve got one minute left” and then “I withdraw my question.” Eventually Taylor was able to answer, but Trump jumped on Taylor’s initial hesitation to claim, as Ratcliffe no doubt intended, that he had just been exonerated.

Throughout the impeachment process, Ratcliffe was not a disinterested fact-finder but, rather, a rabid partisan defending Trump at all costs. Ratcliffe didn’t just vote no on the articles of impeachment but “hell no,” and he faithfully echoed his master in denouncing this “fake impeachment scheme.” Trump rewarded his poodle by appointing him to his defense team in the Senate — and now nominating him to be DNI.

It’s unclear whether Ratcliffe will be confirmed by the Senate this time around, but even if he is ultimately rejected, Trump has still won, because nominating him resets the clock on how long an acting DNI can serve. In mid-February, Trump fired acting DNI Joseph Maguire after one of his aides briefed Congress on Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. election and admitted that the Russians had a preference for Trump. Trump replaced him with Richard Grenell, a Twitter troll who is now ambassador to Germany and is embarrassingly unqualified to be DNI.

Grenell would have trouble getting hired as even a junior CIA analyst because of his past public relations work on behalf of a shady Moldovan oligarch (according to ProPublica) and an organization funded mostly by the authoritarian Hungarian government (according to The Post). But there is no way to stop Grenell from running the entire intelligence community. He has already begun purging professional intelligence officers and installing Trump toadies. Grenell forced out Deputy DNI Andrew P. Hallman, a well-respected CIA veteran, and hired Kashyap Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) who is notorious for spreading “deep state” conspiracy theories. Patel now has a mandate to “clean house,” according to CBS News.

Without a new nominee for the DNI post, Grenell would have had to step down on March 10 under the Federal Vacancies Reform Act. But now he can serve for the rest of Trump’s term. As law professor Stephen I. Vladeck of the University of Texas at Austin explained to me via email: “Grenell can continue to serve as Acting DNI for so long as the nomination is pending (however long that is), PLUS 210 days from when it fails, PLUS even more time if a second formal nomination is submitted during that 210-day period. So it’s entirely possible he could end up serving longer than 420 days (or far shorter if the Senate confirms Ratcliffe). What a mess, eh?”

This is worse than a mess. It’s a scandal. Trump still doesn’t know much about the substance of government, but he has figured out how to bend it to his will with the skill of an aspiring autocrat. He has done an end run around the law mandating Senate confirmation of a well-qualified national security professional as head of our intelligence community. Whether he ends up with Ratcliffe or Grenell in charge, Trump can keep a partisan hack in this all-important position all through this critical year even as the Russians attempt to interfere in our election. And everyone is too distracted by other news, from the coronavirus to the stock market, to even notice the corruption of our first line of defense against enemy attack.

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