President Trump has never been too fond of the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus on Russia — that the country represents a major threat to U.S. interests — instead siding with, say, President Vladimir Putin’s assessment that the Russian threat has been exaggerated. With the resignation of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and the nomination of Texas Representative John Ratcliffe to replace him, Trump has swapped an Establishment voice with trust in the system for a loyalist one skeptical of the many intel reports that counter the president’s view of the world. As New York’s Chas Danner summarizes: “A very public skeptic of the U.S. intelligence community may soon be put in charge of it.”
On the Trump-Russia relationship, Ratcliffe has been particularly willing to accept the president’s side of things. During Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, the Texas representative accused the special counsel of breaking Justice Department guidelines by stating that the report did not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice. “So Americans need to know this as they listen to the Democrats and socialists on the other side of the aisle as they do dramatic readings from this report that Volume II of this report [the review of obstruction] was not authorized under the law to be written,” Ratcliffe said. But as the New York Times notes, “Critics disagreed with Mr. Ratcliffe’s conclusion, noting that department guidelines call for a special counsel to provide a report ‘explaining the prosecution or declination decisions’ at the end of an investigation.”
Like so many Trump allies who appear on Fox News targeting an audience of one, it appears that Ratcliffe may have catered his Mueller testimony comments to appeal to the president. Ratcliffe reportedly met with Trump the Friday before the Mueller hearings to discuss possibly replacing Coats in the DNI position. The next week, he defended the president unequivocally at a blockbuster televised hearing and cast doubt on the conclusions of the special counsel’s independence via the conservative lightning rod Peter Strzok. On the day he got the job, he followed up on Fox News claiming that the Mueller report was written by “Hillary Clinton’s de facto legal team” and that “it does appear that there were crimes committed during the Obama administration” relating to the FBI monitoring of Trump campaign officials in contact with Russian intelligence assets.
In his two-plus years serving as the president’s “principal adviser” on “intelligence matters related to national security” — responsible for oversight of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and offices within the State Department, the Pentagon, and the Department of Energy — Dan Coats’s strategy as director of National Intelligence was to support the intelligence community independent of the president’s insults or claims that ran contrary to intelligence-community positions. But prioritizing professionalism over personal fealty isn’t a great way to keep one’s role in the Trump administration. (Reports surfaced as early as February that the president wanted Coats out.) If Ratcliffe’s performance in the Mueller testimony is any evidence, the congressman may reverse those priorities.
Earlier this month, Axios reported that Trump considered the DNI Office “an unnecessary bureaucratic layer and that he would like to get rid of it.” Though that wish was politically infeasible, he may have found the next best thing: a lock-step supporter doubtful of the project he oversees who is prepared to defend him on the political threat that his past with Russia represents and the growing threat the country presents moving into 2020.