The White House signaled this week that it may choose a loyalist as interim director of national intelligence after departing Director Dan Coats steps down on August 15.
Under current law, Coats would be replaced by Sue Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence and a widely respected career official, until the Senate can confirm a permanent replacement. But the White House has asked the Office of Director of National Intelligence for a list of its senior officials, signaling that it could be looking for an interim head who is more ideologically loyal to Trump.
The news, reported Friday by The Daily Beast, confirms an earlier report by CNN that the White House is looking to bypass the line of succession in order to name a different acting intelligence chief.
That might not even be legal, as CNN reported. Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Richard Burr (R-NC), whose committee oversees the U.S. Intelligence Committee, told CNN that the president can choose whomever he wants, though Burr went on to praise Gordon.
“Well, the White house certainly has that ability, but she’s more than capable of handling that job,” Burr told CNN. “I would be shocked, because that’s what principal deputies are in place for.”
Trump had nominated Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX), a vocal defender of the president, to replace Coats on a permanent basis, but announced Friday he was withdrawing the nomination. Ratcliffe had minimal relevant experience, and members on both sides of the aisle raised concerns about his fitness for the job.
Ratcliffe faced allegations that he grossly overstated his involvement in a 2007 terrorism financing prosecution — one of the main qualifications his supporters have pointed to as he runs to lead the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies.
But Ratcliffe was likely the nominee because he proved himself a capable centurion for the president. At public testimony by former special counsel Robert Mueller last month, for example, Ratcliffe lit into the special counsel and suggested that parts of his investigation that focused on potential obstruction of justice by Trump might have been illegal for the Justice Department to pursue.
“It was written to a legal standard that does not exist at the Justice Department,” Ratcliffe said at the time. “And it was written in violation of every DOJ principle about extra-prosecutorial commentary.” The special counsel was appointed under rules established after the investigation into former President Bill Clinton, and a federal appeals court affirmed that Mueller’s appointment was valid.
“I agree with the chairman 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 two of this report puts him.”
Many critics saw that performance as an audition aimed at an audience of one: the president. If so, it worked, with Trump announcing Coats’ departure and Ratcliffe’s nomination days later.
The most recent scuffles are part of a larger war between Trump and the Intelligence Community that has been raging just beneath the headlines since before the president even took office.
The intelligence community’s January 6, 2017, assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to swing votes toward Trump cast a shadow over the incoming administration that only grew longer as the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a counter-intelligence investigation into Trump and his campaign.
When then Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Russia probe and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed a special counsel, Trump was reportedly incensed.
The nation’s intelligence chiefs have also publicly contradicted the White House in their assessments of Iran and North Korea, widening the chasm between Trump and his intelligence services.
UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect that Rep. Ratcliffe’s nomination has been withdrawn.