Flush with his impeachment acquittal victory, President Donald Trump has resurrected his nomination of Texas Congressman John Ratcliffe to become Director of National Intelligence. Ratcliffe’s initial nomination sank in July after it was revealed he had embellished his record as a U.S. Attorney by lying that he fought terrorism and rounded up hundreds of undocumented immigrants.
So, what motivates Trump to trot out the same damaged goods to head U.S. intelligence? This is, after all, a man whom former acting CIA director Mike Morell described as having “the least national security experience and the most partisan political experience of any previous director of national intelligence,” Even worse, Ratcliffe has peddled the conspiracy theory that “there may have been a secret society of folks within the Department of Justice and the FBI” in 2016 who were working to prevent Trump from becoming president.
It’s not complicated. Trump prizes slavishness and intellectual dishonesty, or flat out derangement. All the qualities Ratcliffe seems to possess in abundance. Post-impeachment, Trump feels empowered to push the envelope even further than he already has to corrupt and subjugate the government apparatus to his own ends, with a key focus on the intelligence community.
Ratcliffe would succeed Vice Admiral Joseph Maguire, who was recently ousted as acting DNI by Trump after Maguire’s staff briefed the House Intelligence Committee on ongoing Russian election interference. To fill the gap, Trump has named one of his biggest loyalists, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, as acting DNI.
Grenell’s Trumpist antics as U.S. envoy have already made him a pariah in Berlin. But now, he has gotten the ball rolling in doing his master’s bidding and cleaning house: In just two weeks on the job, he has fired DNI principal executive and veteran CIA officer Andrew Hallman and hired Kash Patel as “senior advisor.” Patel is an NSC staffer and former Devon Nunes aide with little grounding in the intelligence community. Worse yet, Patel has already played a disgraced role in American history. He presented himself, falsely, as a Ukraine expert to the president and fed him disinformation that led to Trump’s impeachment-prompting attempt to extort Ukrainian president Zelensky. Grennell also dismissed chief of staff Viraj Mirani, continuing Trump’s purge of qualified and experienced IC officials.
Topping off Trump’s appointments of credentials-lite “yes-men,” is that of Michael Ellis, another Nunes acolyte, as the NSC’s director for intelligence. Ellis was behind the decision to bury the transcript of Trump’s infamous July 25, 2019 call to President Zelensky in a super-secret code word server. At the same time, Trump has imposed McCarthy-like loyalty-testing of federal employees through his hand-chosen grand inquisitor, 29-year-old John McEntee, the president’s former body man who was fired last year for a gambling addiction. Along with his deputy, a college student, McEntee is reportedly concentrating the hunt on allegedly anti-Trump political appointees. My contacts inside the government report the working level has not yet been targeted. “But our antennae are up,” said one national security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In other words, the president is turning paranoia into personnel policy. An expert in the politicization of intelligence, American University professor Joshua Rovner calls Trump’s moves “manipulation by appointment.” He told me in an interview that he worries that Ratcliffe “would perpetrate real damage to the intelligence community.”
Stephen Slick, a 27-year CIA senior operations officer who now heads the University of Texas at Austin’s intelligence studies program, told me Trump’s bid to coerce political loyalty from government agencies and civil servants that are charged with pursuing the truth puts the country in danger. “If the president succeeds in his project to diminish the fundamental non-partisan character of American intelligence and law enforcement, we will become increasingly vulnerable to miscalculation or catastrophic surprise,” he said.
Of course, we know the consequences of manipulated intelligence. George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein in 2003, based on faulty intelligence, led the country into a chaotic war that destabilized the Middle East. Thus far, that overseas adventure has cost more than $2 trillion and almost 4,500 American service members’ lives. Roughly 32,000 soldiers have been wounded.
The Trump White House’s intimidation is already having a deleterious impact. Last month, agency chiefs declined to participate in briefing the House Intelligence Committee in the public segment of the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment hearing, fearing that doing so would attract the president’s ire.
Trump’s constant attacks against the intelligence community fit into his wider war on truth itself. His mission is twofold: to shield the public from intelligence that potentially could damage him politically, and to control the flow of information emanating from the agencies. That Trump’s goals fit neatly with those of Vladimir Putin could be a mere coincidence, or perhaps something more insidious. Eventually, that truth will come out.
Meanwhile, the Vichy GOP acts as Trump’s enabler. Based on the past behavior of Republicans in Congress, it seems obvious that they won’t stand up to the president now, even with the nation’s national security on the line.
Having served for many years as a State Department diplomat, and as a Pentagon intelligence analyst, I am of the conviction that Trump knows full well what he is doing. He may, typically, not have a detailed plan, but his ultimate objective is clear. And the country will be the worse for it.