Trump’s Message to U.S. Intelligence Officials: Be Loyal or Leave
This past Wednesday, during Robert Mueller’s testimony before the House Judiciary Committee, Representative John Ratcliffe, a Republican from Texas who was previously a federal prosecutor, accused the former special counsel of illegally smearing President Trump. Ratcliffe demanded to know why Mueller had stated in Volume II of his report—which investigated whether the President had obstructed justice—that, “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” His voice rising, Ratcliffe said that the sentence “was not authorized under the law to be written” and violated a “bedrock principle of our justice system.” He urged Americans to ignore the “Democrats and socialists on the other side of the aisle” who cited it. Fact checkers found Ratcliffe’s claims to be false, but he ended his appearance with a dramatic flourish. “I agree with the chairman this morning when he said Donald Trump is not above the law. He’s not,” Ratcliffe said, his voice rising. “But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where Volume II of this report puts him.”
In a Sunday-morning interview on Fox News, Ratcliffe again demonstrated his support for the President, declaring that “it was a great week for Donald Trump.” The congressman claimed that Mueller did “not have a command” of what was in the report, which, he said, had been written by “Hillary Clinton’s de-facto legal team.” He said that Trump deserved a presumption of innocence, then added, “What I do know, as a former federal prosecutor, is that it does appear that there were crimes committed during the Obama Administration.” Ratcliffe then praised an unprecedented review that Attorney General William Barr is conducting of the work of the F.B.I. and key intelligence agencies in the launch of the 2016 Trump-Russia investigation, saying, “Bill Barr has earned my trust already and the trust of the American people.”
Six hours later, Trump nominated Ratcliffe to be the most powerful intelligence official in the country, replacing Dan Coats, who is stepping down as the director of National Intelligence. Sources told the Times that Trump enjoyed watching Ratcliffe aggressively question Mueller, but denied that this was the reason the Texas congressman got the job. The Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, disagreed, issuing a statement that said, “It’s clear that Rep. Ratcliffe was selected because he exhibited blind loyalty to President Trump with his demagogic questioning of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller.”
In any event, the dynamic at work is clear. Coats, a leader of the Republican establishment, repeatedly contradicted Trump regarding the threat posed by Russia, and also publicly questioned Trump’s optimistic assessments of North Korea’s willingness to give up its nuclear weapons and the extent to which ISIS has been eradicated. A Trump loyalist who echoes the President’s narratives is now set to take Coats’s job.
Most important, Ratcliffe is a full-throated backer of Trump’s practice of trafficking in conspiracy theories for political gain; he has joined the President’s effort to claim that it wasn’t the myriad contacts between Trump campaign aides and Russian officials that led to Mueller investigation but, rather, that the inquiry was part of a “deep state” conspiracy. Ratcliffe has repeatedly claimed that Hillary Clinton, not Donald Trump, colluded with Russia and that a cabal of C.I.A. and F.B.I. officials, working with foreign intelligence services, carried out a global conspiracy to entrap Trump aides.
A senior intelligence official recently told me that Barr is personally convinced that there was something nefarious in how the F.B.I. started its investigation in 2016. (The official called the claims of an international plot “preposterous” and pointed out that the Senate Intelligence Committee found them meritless.) If such a plot existed, it would be the largest intelligence scandal in American history; if the Attorney General has clear evidence of it, he should disclose it publicly.
James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence—one of the officials whom Barr is reportedly investigating—declined to comment on the Attorney General’s probe and said in an e-mail that it is the President’s prerogative to nominate whom he wishes. But he added that the nomination of a Trump loyalist to replace Coats sends a clear message to members of the intelligence community: “Obviously, the President wants someone in this position whose first priority is loyalty to Donald Trump.”
Clapper also expressed concern about the effect that appointing Ratcliffe could have on intelligence officials whose job it is to present apolitical information to policymakers. “I worry about the people in the Intelligence Community, and the impact of being directed to write intelligence analyses that comport with the Presidents’ world view, and not their best judgement as to the facts,” he wrote. “Over time, this could be very dangerous to the country. ‘Truth to power’ is a crucial, rock-bed tenet of US intelligence, and Dan Coats upheld that.”
Senator Angus King, a Maine Independent who caucuses with the Democrats and serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, declined to comment on Ratcliffe. But he, too, warned of the dangers of politicizing intelligence. “We have gotten in trouble in this country in the past when we have cherry-picked intelligence for political purposes or to suit the needs of the President,” he told the Times. “That is the worst thing that can happen.”
For the past forty years, a consensus has existed among Republican and Democratic Presidents, congressional leaders, and senior intelligence officials that the intelligence and law-enforcement communities must be free of political bias. Bipartisan agreement on the issue emerged in the nineteen-seventies, after it was discovered that the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. had for decades spied on Americans engaged in constitutionally protected political activities, from members of the far-right John Birch Society to Martin Luther King, Jr. Richard Nixon’s use of former C.I.A. operatives to carry out “dirty tricks” on his political opponents raised further fears of politicizing the spy agencies. The 2003 invasion of Iraq—based on an incorrect intelligence assessment that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction—showed the dangers of telling a President what he wants to hear. The bitter partisanship that Trump intentionally fuels is eroding a forty-year consensus in Washington regarding the need for apolitical intelligence. Fuelled by Trump, Republicans believe that intelligence agencies are plotting against the President; Democrats, in turn, are convinced the President is silencing intelligence chiefs who disagree with him.
Whether Ratcliffe becomes the director of National Intelligence now rests with the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, which must confirm his nomination, once Trump formally submits it, before passing it on for a full Senate vote. The committee’s chairman, Richard Burr, of North Carolina, has done an admirable job of producing a bipartisan investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Burr, who is not running for reëlection, is one of a handful of Republican senators with the ability to defy Trump. He reportedly cautioned the White House that Ratcliffe was too political for such a powerful position. Trump named Ratcliffe anyway.
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