US President Donald Trump announced Republican lawmaker John Ratcliffe as his intelligence chief Friday, sparking fresh controversy over a crucial position that has lacked a permanent office holder for months.
The 53-year-old Trump loyalist was nominated as director of national intelligence after Dan Coats stepped down in July last year, but withdrew from consideration after strong criticism of his credentials from Democrats and a tepid response from key Republicans.
Trump instead named counter-terrorism expert Joseph McGuire as acting director, overseeing the 17 agencies of the intelligence community including the CIA and National Security Agency.
But he forced McGuire out on February 20 after a senior intelligence official told Congress in a closed briefing that the Russians were again supporting Trump’s bid for reelection.
The revolving door continued to spin as Trump appointed another loyalist, Richard Grenell, two weeks ago. But the former ambassador to Germany had no relevant experience and was viewed as highly political.
Some intelligence experts view the latest nomination as a tactic by Trump to insure that Grenell stays on beyond the statutory limit for “acting” directors who haven’t been approved by the Senate.
“The formal submission of his nomination will allow @RichardGrenell to continue to serve as Acting DNI past March 11 — and for another 210 days after Ratcliffe’s rejection or withdrawal,” said University of Texas security law professor Steve Vladeck.
Ratcliffe has been an outspoken Trump defender, frequently appearing on Fox News to spread conspiracy theories and deny the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia tried to boost the president’s election effort in 2016.
Trump said Friday he had held back Ratcliffe’s formal nomination while an unspecified “inspector general report” was being prepared.
“John is an outstanding man of great talent!” he tweeted.
Trump has been determined to place someone politically close to him as chief of the intelligence community, which he views as hostile and full of leakers.
He saw Coats, who was DNI for three years, as a political antagonist who protected the so-called “deep state” that Trump regards as a barrier to his agenda.
He was especially upset when a CIA analyst filed a whistleblower complaint in August on his Ukraine dealings that led to his being impeached for abuse of power.
The Ratcliffe nomination could spark a battle in Congress, amid reports that Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which must approve the nomination, expressed strong doubts about him in August.
Republican Senator Richard Burr, chairman of the intelligence committee, made no comment Friday on his view of Ratcliffe’s qualifications.
“I look forward to receiving Congressman Ratcliffe’s official nomination and ushering it through the Senate’s regular order,” he said in a statement.
The top Democrat on the committee, Senator John Warner, suggested Friday that Ratcliffe would face high hurdles.
“The last time this nomination was unsuccessfully put forward, serious bipartisan questions were raised about Rep. Ratcliffe’s background and qualifications,” he said.
“It’s hard for me to see how anything new has happened to change that.”