Trump Replaces Dan Coats With a Political Lackey as Intelligence Chief

In this bizarro world we’re suffering through in the era of Trump, a backbench congressman can say some of the dumbest crap ever uttered in a nationally televised committee hearing on a Wednesday and get appointed as the director of national intelligence on a Sunday.

John Ratcliffe represents the 4th District of Texas, which is estimated to be the fifth most conservative district in the country. In the 114th Congress, only Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado compiled a higher rating with Heritage Action than Ratcliffe.

During Robert Mueller’s testimony on July 24th, Ratcliffe “auditioned” for the National Intelligence directorship position by launching a ludicrous attack that every decently sentient human immediately realized was illogical.

Texas Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe delivered a sharp rebuke to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s handling of obstruction of justice in his report.

During Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill July 24, Ratcliffe said the entire section went beyond the rules for special counsels and broke with the presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

“You wrote 180 pages about … potential crimes that were not charged or decided,” Ratcliffe said. “Now respectfully, by doing that you managed to violate the most sacred of traditions of prosecutors not offering extra prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that are not charged.”

Ratcliffe emphasized, “You didn’t follow the special counsel regulations. It clearly says write a confidential report about decisions reached. Nowhere in here does it say write a report about decisions that were not reached.”

I could easily spend 3,000 words explaining why this doesn’t make sense, but I’ll try to be very concise. Number one, Robert Mueller was required by the clear language of the statute that created his office to provide the attorney general with “a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel.”

That word “declination” means that Mueller had to give some rationale for why he did not charge the president with crimes. So, “he wrote 180 pages about potential crimes that were not charged or decided” because he had no alternative if he wanted to abide by the law.

As for Mueller not reaching a decision on whether the president committed obstruction of justice, he had his reasons which I will get to. What is obvious is that he made a decision not to charge the president with obstruction of justice. He “declined” to charge him, and therefore explained why he declined to charge him, as was required by law. But he made these explanations in a confidential report. The decision to release redacted portions of the report was not made by Muller, but by attorney general William Barr. That’s why this next part of Ratcliffe’s questioning is nonsensical.

“Now respectfully, by doing that you managed to violate the most sacred of traditions of prosecutors not offering extra prosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that are not charged.”

This reasoning can give a person whiplash. The principle that Rep. Ratcliffe was trying to apply is that prosecutors who investigate people and then decide not to charge them with a crime should not release any derogatory information to the public since the person will not have any formal opportunity to defend themselves. But that doesn’t mean the prosecutors cannot discuss the derogatory information privately among themselves or with the attorney general in a confidential report explaining why they did not bring charges.

Again, it was William Barr who released this derogatory information, not Robert Mueller. But, more to the point, the entire reason that Mueller did not accuse the president of obstructing justice is because he concluded that he was not allowed to prosecute him for it and that it would therefore be unfair to make a legal accusation that the president would have no way to defend against. In other words, Mueller honored the very principle that Ratcliffe was misappropriating by declining to make a formal finding of obstruction despite the fact that he clearly stated that he could not exonerate Trump or clear him of the charges. He made it crystal clear that Trump can be charged with obstruction of justice as soon as he is no longer president.

His reward for this was to be accused of the precise opposite by the least senior member of the minority on the House Intelligence Committee.

It is obviously absurd to ask a prosecutor to investigate a person who he is not allowed to prosecute. Under those circumstances it’s flat-out insane to say that he cannot even describe crimes uncovered during the investigation unless he charges those crimes. If we follow that through, Mueller could have discovered that Trump was a serial killer who had buried bodies in the Rose Garden and he wouldn’t be allowed to tell anyone about it. But, one more time for emphasis, Mueller didn’t tell Congress or the public about the skeletons he uncovered. He told William Barr.

Rep. Ratcliffe did his bit at the hearings, grandstanding with this risible pretzel logic, and now he has his reward, as reported by the New York Times:

President Trump announced on Sunday that Dan Coats would step down as the director of national intelligence after a fraught tenure marked by tension with the Oval Office, and he tapped one of his staunch defenders, Representative John Ratcliffe, to take over the country’s expansive network of spy agencies…

…Mr. Trump met with Mr. Ratcliffe on July 19 to discuss the job, but the hearings just five days later offered the congressman a chance to essentially audition for the president, who enjoyed watching him grill Mr. Mueller, according to people informed about the process…

…Mr. Ratcliffe…hammered Mr. Mueller for saying he could not exonerate Mr. Trump on obstruction of justice, declaring that such a determination was beyond his mission.

“I agree with the chairman this morning when he said Donald Trump is not above the law,” Mr. Ratcliffe said. “He’s not. But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law.”

I am not a big fan of Dan Coats but he was a reasonable choice to serve as the director of national intelligence. He didn’t get along with Trump primarily because he has at least one foot rooted in reality.

In recent months, Mr. Coats discovered that it was difficult to align himself with the president — particularly on Russia. Mr. Coats saw Russia as an adversary and pushed for closer cooperation with American allies in Europe. Time after time, the White House sought to weaken Mr. Coats’s language regarding the Kremlin.

A secret report by Mr. Coats about interference in the 2018 midterm elections contained a harsh assessment about Russia’s efforts to influence the American public by stoking conspiracy theories and polarization. But the public statement, edited by the White House, contained little of the tough language.

Russia was just one example. Coats has been blindsided over and over again during his time trying to coordinate the country’s intelligence network for the president (see, e.g. North Korea and all things Jared Kushner).

Coats’s departure is really just a significant advance in an ongoing purge of the intelligence community of anyone who might put the country’s interests before the insane interests of the current president of the United States.

Now Trump will have someone in charge of the entire intelligence community who is completely partisan and has been marinated in the fever swamp of right-wing media.

[Ratcliffe] had little intelligence background before arriving in Congress even though the law requires “extensive national security expertise” for the position, and intelligence veterans expressed alarm at what they worry was the politicization of the position.

“The ability to tell truth to power was the traditional qualification for the director of national intelligence,” said Dennis R. Blair, another former director under Mr. Obama. “More recently, sucking up to power seems to be what is expected.”

…Some Republicans, however, privately expressed concern, including Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who cautioned the president’s advisers that he considered Mr. Ratcliffe too political for the post, according to people familiar with the discussions. Mr. Trump disregarded the warning.

And I’ll just leave you with this, because it’s the bottom line:

Douglas Wise, a former C.I.A. officer and deputy head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the appointment could pose an “existential threat” to the agencies. “Intelligence has to be candid, truthful and accurate even if it is unpleasant and does not confirm to the biases of the president,” he said.

There will be nothing candid, truthful, or accurate about the information Ratcliffe provides Trump or Congress. He has been appointed specifically to put an end to that sort of thing.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com