John Ratcliffe, the man President Donald Trump says he will nominate to become director of national intelligence, has set himself apart for one thing: his open support of President Donald Trump. This comes in contrast to the outgoing DNI, Dan Coats, whose rare public assessments of intelligence-related national security risks contradicted the president’s assertions. For instance: Coats testified earlier this year that North Korea was unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons; Trump was apparently “enraged.” Coats’ resignation reportedly follows months of watching the White House water down warnings on the threat posed by Russia.
Trump’s Twitter announcement that a congressman from Texas with limited national security experience known mostly for his loyalty to Trump would replace Coats, then, caused some concern: Does this mean the president will try to turn the intelligence community into a political apparatus? Is Ratcliffe qualified to oversee the entire U.S. intelligence community and advise the president and National Security Council on matters of intelligence?
To get a better sense of what Ratcliffe’s likely nomination means, I called Ned Price, a member of former President Barack Obama’s National Security Council and a former CIA senior analyst and spokesperson. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Emily Tamkin: I saw you comparing the Ratcliffe nomination to the situation with Attorney General Bill Barr. To what extent is this what we’ve seen before, with Trump putting his own loyalists in, and to what extent is this unique?
Ned Price: We’ve seen this before across the Trump administration. There’s no doubt about that. But we haven’t seen this when it comes to a national security position like the director of national intelligence. I think the comparison to Barr is an apt one, and I think Trump intends to nominate Ratcliffe because he wants him to be the Bill Barr of the intelligence realm. But the comparison with Barr can only go so far.
I think what’s instructive to remember is back [in the spring] of this year, when Trump made some waves by delegating to Barr declassification authorities vis-a-vis his inquiry into the intelligence community’s Russia analysis. Were John Ratcliffe to be confirmed to this position, that proactive step wouldn’t be necessary because Ratcliffe would have both classification and declassification authority when it comes to our most sensitive national assets. That is, sources of intelligence, methods of intelligence, programs, priorities: the keys to our intelligence kingdom. And in Ratcliffe, he would find someone, I think as we’ve seen from his appearance during last week’s Mueller hearing, his Fox News interviews—he would find someone who seems be willing to put Trump’s interests over those of the American people. We all take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. I think my concern is Ratcliffe would see this job as protecting and defending Donald Trump, the Constitution be damned. And I think the tools at his disposal, chiefly, classification and declassification, along with ready access to the president on a near daily basis, could be a very dangerous combination when it comes to someone like this as director of national intelligence.
You also made the point that actually, under the citation, having extensive experience is a prerequisite for the job. Do you think that will matter enough that it will stop Ratcliffe?
Frankly, no. I don’t think this alone, lack of experience, would stop Ratcliffe from being nominated. Nor do I think it alone would stymie his confirmation. I think there were moments of undue optimism on Sunday, when people like Richard Burr [the Republican senator from North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee] were praising Dan Coats, understandably so, for his service to the country and really remaining silent on Ratcliffe. Unfortunately, they, even people like Burr, have been more recently signaling that they intend to see his nomination through as expeditiously as possible. I am pessimistic that qualification will be a barrier because it has never been a barrier when it comes to this administration. You see that in any number of Cabinet officials who, in some cases, not only don’t have expertise in their assigned department or agency, but have actually spent much of their professional careers trying to disembowel or disempower the departments and agencies they’re charged with leading. So, I think there has to be something else here.
This is very early stages in this potential nomination battle, but I think something we’ve seen already is Ratcliffe’s apparent willingness to embellish his credentials. In some ways you can’t blame the guy, because he has no national security credentials of which to speak. He’s been on the House Intelligence Committee for some seven months now. And so when he said he landed terrorists in jail, that sounds like a qualification that would suggest he’s steeped in the issue of counterterrorism and the law on this issue. But you take a look at his record and that’s just not the case. As best we can tell, he was appointed to review troubles with the Holy Land Foundation case, which is a far cry from prosecuting and successfully convicting and incarcerating hardened terrorists. But, I should say, he has the ultimate qualification when it comes to Trump, which is his willingness to have Trump’s back both in front of the cameras and, by some accounts, behind closed doors in various work in the House Intelligence Committee.
If you can lie so easily at this stage over something as demonstrably false as, “I put terrorists in jail,” what does that suggest for how he’ll perform in the job?
This is a job that requires the utmost of one’s character. Someone who has not only sterling credentials, but sterling credibility and a moral compass to go with it. I think we’ve seen that in DNIs of both Democratic and Republican administrations. The fact that he thought he could [lie] with impunity as a sitting member of Congress and as the potential nominee for one of the most sensitive Cabinet posts there is suggests what we already know—that he doesn’t have the experience for the job—but it also suggests he doesn’t have the character for the job.
The way Trump speaks about the “deep state,” big government, the State Department, which sort of ground to a halt when he got it—it’s not only that he’s only critical of intelligence agencies. It seems that he has a particular problem with intelligence itself. What is it about intelligence that bothers him, do you think? Is it the Russia investigation, or something else?
I think the problem is he finds objective truth and objective fact and, in the case of the intelligence community, objective analysis, to be objectionable. He finds it objectionable because, in many cases, it runs right up against his preferred policy direction. Whether it’s North Korea and the intelligence community’s assessment that North Korea is unlikely to denuclearize; whether it’s Iran and the intelligence community’s consistent affirmation that Iran has been abiding by the terms of the Iran deal, despite Trump’s departure and withdrawal from it; whether it’s Russia and the intelligence community’s high confidence assessment that Russia was behind the assault in 2016 and is behind the assault that has been described as ongoing; or whether it’s climate change. We read a firsthand account of someone who tried to speak truth to power in the intelligence community, and the White House shut him down [for] speaking something as objective and widely understood as the national security implications of climate change.
Trump has an ideology, and when facts come into conflict with it, his tendency is to throw out the facts. And when you throw out the facts, you in turn throw out the intelligence community. What worries me is that we hear this after intelligence community officials speak in public. After Director Coats, [CIA Director] Gina Haspel, and others testified about all these issues in January of this year, Trump said they should go back to school. When Dan Coats was on the stage at Aspen and said it wasn’t a good idea for Trump to meet privately with Putin, it led to days of recrimination between the White House and the DNI.
What worries me is … if we have John Ratcliffe at the helm, those messages won’t make it to Trump. They may not even make it out of the building. People often ask, “Why does it matter who the DNI is when you have a president who dismisses intelligence out of hand?” The fact of the matter is the president is known as the chief customer when it comes to intelligence, but he’s not the only customer. And so even when you have a lead customer who is stubborn, who isn’t willing to listen, who has made up his mind, if those around him—his secretary of state, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his secretary of defense, the other recipients of the [Presidential Daily Brief] and intelligence information—are briefed on the potential implications of a policy decision that could lead to new dangers and threats to the world, they could at least take steps to mitigate it. But if that information isn’t even making its way into the PDB or to other senior administration officials, there’s no way to limit the damage of an unwise and ill-considered policy.
Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former director of intelligence and counterintelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy and former CIA official, tweeted on Sunday that Trump is consolidating personal control over the intelligence community. He wrote that “Trump is close to neutralizing intelligence and law enforcement as spoilers in his bid to amass unprecedented executive power.” Do you agree with that?
I think that may be overstating it. I think what Trump cares about most is not the awesome power of our intelligence community writ large, or our law enforcement community writ large. What he wants is someone who can be at the top and is a touchstone for him so that his own, rather narrow personal interests are protected. I think that’s all he cares about. I don’t think he’s looking to train the resources of our intelligence apparatus on political dissidents. I think his interests are narrower. But I think they’re in many ways equally dangerous.
When you have a president who is putting himself above the law, demonstrating a willingness to pull all of the levers of government—even those levers of government which by norm, and in some cases by statute, have been considered off-limits to political actors, including the president of the United States—that starts an erosion of the balance of power and the checks and balances that have preserved our democracy.
So, how do you un-erode that? If one takes the position that a strong and independent intelligence community is a good thing, how do we get back to that after Trump?
The challenge here is that so much has been based on long-standing norms. It’s just been patterned on behavior of successive responsible presidents. I’m actually a little more sanguine in thinking that this will be one of those areas where it won’t be automatic, but if we have a responsible actor sitting in the Oval Office in 2021, those norms can come back into place. I think Congress will have an opportunity to potentially legislate, where previously only norms governed behavior. I think there could be checks, for example, on what could be declassified by the president of the United States with a stroke of a pen, so you don’t have things like the Devin Nunes memo creeping up, and it requires the DNI to sign off on declassification. I think there have been some interesting proposals out there that would structure the DNI more like the FBI director, operating under a 10-year term rather than a term attached to a specific president. But I think the most important changes will come with the identity of the occupant of the White House. And if we have someone who respects the balance of power, who respects the checks on presidential power, I think that will go a long way to restoring what we previously had.