Trump loyalist John Ratcliffe tapped to replace Dan Coats as intelligence chief

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called Coats' resignation "bad news for the security of America"

Published July 29, 2019 11:25AM (EDT)

 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

President Donald Trump announced in a tweet Sunday that Dan Coats will step down as the director of national intelligence on August 15. In his place, the commander-in-chief will nominate Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, to head the intelligence community.

"I am pleased to announce that highly respected Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas will be nominated by me to be the Director of National Intelligence," Trump wrote on Twitter. "A former U.S. Attorney, John will lead and inspire greatness for the Country he loves. Dan Coats, the current Director, will be leaving office on August 15th. I would like to thank Dan for his great service to our Country. The Acting Director will be named shortly."

In a resignation letter submitted Sunday, Coats said he had overseen the reauthorization of surveillance rules allowing the U.S. to collect the online communications of foreigners outside of the country, addressed threats to U.S. elections and improved the intelligence community's budget processes.

"The intelligence community is stronger than ever and increasingly well prepared to meet new challenges and opportunities," he said. "I believe it is time for me to move on to the next chapter of my life."

Coats, a former ambassador and Republican senator from Indiana, spent his tenure in the administration publicly at odds with Trump on issues such as Russian election interference, North Korea, climate change and the capability of terrorist groups, particularly ISIS. He reportedly considered stepping down in February over his frustrations with Trump but Vice President Mike Pence, who is said to be one of his closest allies in the administration, persuaded him to remain in the role.

As rumors swirled the Coats would be ousted, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, tweeted at the time: "DNI Coats is a great friend, former Senate colleague and leader of integrity who has always served our country well. We are fortunate to have a person of his ability and candor to lead our intelligence community."

Late on Sunday, Ratcliffe tweeted that he was "deeply grateful" to Trump for "the opportunity to lead our Nation’s intelligence community and work on behalf of all the public servants who are tirelessly devoted to defending the security and safety of the United States."

"President Trump's call to serve in this role was not one I could ignore, and I am incredibly thankful to him for this great honor," he wrote. "I look forward to my new role with energy and focus."

Ratcliffe's nomination follows his aggressive questioning of Robert Mueller during the former special counsel's congressional testimony last week.

A former prosecutor and staunch Trump ally, Ratcliffe garnered praise from the president's allies for his aggressive questioning of Mueller, in which he declared: "The special counsel's job — nowhere does it say that you were to conclusively determine Donald Trump's innocence or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him."

"I agree with Chairman Nadler this morning when he said Donald Trump is not above the law. He's not," Ratcliffe added. "But he damn sure shouldn't be below the law, which is where Volume II of this report puts him."

House and Senate leaders in both parties appeared rattled at the news that Coats was stepping down. Democrats condemned Trump's pick, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., stating Coats' resignation "is bad news for the security of America." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also said he was "very sorry to learn" that Coats would be leaving his job.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., vehemently denounced Trump's plan to nominate Ratcliffe to replace Coats.

"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 S. Mueller III," Schumer said in a statement. "If Senate Republicans elevate such a partisan player to a position that requires intelligence expertise and nonpartisanship, it would be a big mistake."

But while Ratcliffe's performance in the Mueller hearing earned him attention among Trump and other Republicans, it was not what landed him on the president's radar. Advisers to Trump told Axios that Trump had already been considering Ratcliffe for the position before Mueller's testimony, suggesting the lawmaker's fiery line of questioning could have been influenced by more than Mueller's prosecutorial decisions. Ratcliffe had also reportedly been on Trump's short-list to replace former Attorney General Jeff Sessions before he ultimately chose William Barr.

Trump has been considering whether to replace Coats since at least February. Coats has drawn Trump's ire more than once for not defending him publicly on matters of national security and foreign affairs. He was famously caught off guard during an on-stage interview at last year's Aspen Security Form when he appeared visibly surprised by an announcement that Trump was planning on inviting Russian President Vladimir Putin to Washington.

"Say that again?" Coats quipped to MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell. "That is going to be special."

In January, Trump lashed out his top intelligence officials after they testified about their assessments of worldwide threats to U.S. national security, which presented significant differences with his own views.

"Perhaps Intelligence should go back to school!" Trump tweeted at the time.

By Shira Tarlo

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