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Trump Abruptly Drops John Ratcliffe As DNI Nominee Amid Political Headwinds

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, won't be President Trump's nominee to serve as director of national intelligence after all, Trump said on Friday.
Andrew Harnik
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, won't be President Trump's nominee to serve as director of national intelligence after all, Trump said on Friday.

Updated at 4:32 p.m. ET

President Trump abruptly dropped his intention to nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to serve as director of national intelligence on Friday.

Coolness from Senate Republicans and reports in the press about past overstatements regarding Ratcliffe's record appear to have prompted the White House to calculate that it was wiser to cut bait now than try to press ahead against those headwinds.

Trump wrote on Twitter that Ratcliffe had been treated "unfairly" in media coverage and that he had told the congressman it might be easier to just stay in the House.

Trump also wrote that he would announce another nominee to become director of national intelligence "shortly."

The president later told reporters that he is looking at "very well-known people" and that he had a list of three candidates he intended to consider over the weekend. Trump did not identify who was on it.

Trump vs. the spies

The DNI position is to become vacant Aug. 15 with the resignation of Dan Coats, with whom Trump never developed a rapport.

Coats and the leaders of the intelligence community also have publicly contradicted Trump a number of times with assessments that ran counter to his own ambitions.

Trump wants to negotiate with North Korea to end its nuclear program; Coats and the intelligence community's assessment was that it would never surrender its weapons. Trump abrogated U.S. involvement in the Iran nuclear deal; the national security establishment maintained that Iran had remained within compliance.

And Trump goes back and forth regarding what he accepts about foreign election interference since the Russian attack on the 2016 presidential election; all along, Coats and other intelligence community bosses have been trying to respond, including with the appointment of a new election security czar.

Tensions between the president and the intelligence community also appear to have worsened over the Ratcliffe episode, as some people in the spy world made clear how unqualified they believed he was and how unwelcome he would be atop the sprawling alphabet soup of domestic and foreign spy agencies.

The feeling apparently is mutual: The New York Times reported on Friday that Trump has at least once barred Coats' deputy, Sue Gordon, from briefings in the Oval Office — and that the White House also might attempt to stop her from serving as the interim DNI during the interregnum after Coats' departure.

Gordon is an intelligence community lifer with some three decades of experience and has served as the day-to-day, hands-on manager within ODNI. Her supporters faulted what appeared to be a scheme to deny her at least an interim role in the top job, which they argue is owed her by law.

Trump told reporters on Friday that in fact he would entertain the idea of naming Gordon as the acting director of national intelligence.

"I like Sue Gordon," Trump said. "Certainly she will be considered."

Senate intelligence committee ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., told theTimes the idea of rejecting Gordon was "outrageous."

Ratcliffe defends himself

Ratcliffe thanked Trump in a Twitter post following the one Trump used to announce he would no longer be nominated.

Ratcliffe also said he would have been a candid and professional director of national intelligence, responding directly to the worries that he was being installed as a political lackey.

Senate intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in a statement on Friday that he respected "Ratcliffe's decision to withdraw."

Burr also pointed to the team serving now within the office of the director — including Gordon — but said it won't be sufficient forever.

"As the White House determines its next nominee, I'm heartened by the fact that ODNI has an experienced and capable leadership team to help see it through this transition," Burr said.

"However, there is no substitute for having a Senate-confirmed director in place to lead our intelligence community. I remain committed to moving the official nomination through regular order once it is submitted to the Senate."

Ratcliffe's name never was formally transmitted to the Senate and so the "regular order" process Burr described never got underway.

The back-and-forth over his candidacy was the latest case of Trump airing the name of a prospective nominee without actually submitting it and putting senators in a position to cast a vote.

Two potential nominees for the board of the Federal Reserve also were discussed in Washington and then withdrawn without action by, in their case, the Senate Banking Committee.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.