OP-ED: Trump’s nominee to oversee intelligence says the right things, but so did Barr

Michael McGough
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Rep. John Ratcliffe, (R-TX), testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May. 5, 2020. The panel is considering Ratcliffe's nomination for director of national intelligence. (Andrew Harnik/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)

Rep. John Ratcliffe, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be director of national intelligence, was a leading Republican voice during the House impeachment inquiry and his credentials to oversee the intelligence community are underwhelming. Still, the Texas Republican's Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee suggests that he has one selling point, perhaps even for some Democrats.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the panel’s vice chairman, told Ratcliffe that some senators believe his “main qualification for this post is you are not Ambassador Grenell.” That was a reference to Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, a Trump loyalist the president installed as acting director of national intelligence after the departure of another acting director, retired Adm. Joseph Maguire. Crossing an unwritten line, Maguire made the mistake of defending the anonymous whistleblower who complained about Trump’s pressing Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden.

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Warner said it wasn’t enough that Ratcliffe, a member of the House Intelligence Committee and former federal prosecutor, would be an improvement over Grenell. Other senators may reluctantly disagree.

Not for the first time, a Trump nominee benefits from the fact that he would replace an even less qualified acting official. (Trump has expressed a preference for relying on “acting” officials who have not been confirmed by the Senate for their temporary roles.) Attorney General William Barr, who previously had run the Justice Department under President George H.W. Bush, displaced acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, but only after assuring the Senate that he would allow special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to complete the investigation of alleged ties between Russia and the 2016 Trump campaign. (Barr kept his word, but gave a misleading summary of Mueller’s conclusions and otherwise has acted as a cheerleader for Trump.)

Ratcliffe said the right things at his hearing. After Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., confronted him with past statements that the Ukraine whistleblower got caught making a false statement and “didn’t tell the truth,” Ratcliffe said he didn’t want to relitigate what he once called “this disgraceful impeachment hoax.” But he also promised: “I want to make it very clear, if confirmed as DNI, every whistleblower, past, present and future, will enjoy every protection under the law.”

Yet Ratcliffe danced around matters that have divided the president and the so-called deep state. The intelligence community concluded that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, a finding recently reaffirmed by the Senate Intelligence Committee. But Ratcliffe wouldn’t choose between that finding and the contrary conclusion of Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee that Russian sowed discord without preferring a candidate.

“I respect both committees,” Ratcliffe said.

Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the chair of the Intelligence Committee, professed himself satisfied that Ratcliffe “would serve in an independent capacity.” We can hope that’s true, but if Burr’s appraisal is correct, Ratcliffe might not last long in this administration.

— Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C.