GOP warms up to bizarre Trump choice for National Intel director

Ratcliffe is a fringe congressman with a disturbing record. And yet, here we are, watching Senate Republicans advance his DNI nomination.
Image: Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, arrives for a House Intelligence Committee hearing on impeachment on Nov. 13, 2019.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, arrives for a House Intelligence Committee hearing on impeachment on Nov. 13, 2019.J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The director of National Intelligence is a rather important job. As Bloomberg News recently noted, the person who holds the position is responsible for overseeing the nation's 17 intelligence bodies, "including the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency, on everything from terrorist threats to cybersecurity attacks and election interference by foreigners."

With this in mind, when Donald Trump chose Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to serve as DNI last summer, it was practically insulting. The Texas Republican, who was apparently unvetted by the White House, was immediately recognized as one of Congress' most far-right members, who's dabbled in silly conspiracy theories, and who's been a disengaged lawmaker with no meaningful connections with the intelligence agencies the president wanted him to oversee.

As regular readers may recall, the whole ordeal quickly became an embarrassing fiasco. Within days of Trump introducing Ratcliffe as his choice for DNI, the far-right congressman was caught repeatedly lying about his professional background. Many noted that he didn't even meet the statutory guidelines for the position.

Senate Republicans didn't want Trump to nominate the guy, and GOP senators seemed relieved when the Ratcliffe debacle came to an abrupt end.

That is, until a couple of months ago, when the president decided to try again with the same unqualified congressman. What's more, as the New York Times reported overnight, Ratcliffe is likely to be confirmed by the Republican-led Senate.

President Trump first picked Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas to be the nation's intelligence chief last summer, but resistance in the Republican Senate was so firm that Mr. Ratcliffe's name was withdrawn before his nomination ever became official. Eight months later, Mr. Ratcliffe is back. On Tuesday, he will step before many of those same lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee for a confirmation hearing to be the director of national intelligence -- this time as a full-fledged nominee whose prospects have vastly improved as Republican opposition has softened.

The whole thing is a bit bizarre. Ratcliffe is a fringe congressman with a disturbing interest in crackpot social-media accounts, who seemed to get the president's attention through a series of Fox News appearances, and whose career should've been derailed when evidence emerged that he lied repeatedly about his professional background.

And yet, here we are -- watching the Senate scramble to advance the Texan's nomination during a pandemic.

Even Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a Senate Intelligence Committee member, announced last week that she'd met with Ratcliffe and was satisfied the congressman has "the experience to meet the statutory standard to fill the position."

It's a difficult position to understand. The statute, which Collins helped write, says the DNI "shall have extensive national security experience and management experience." Ratcliffe has been a small-town mayor, a federal prosecutor, and an unremarkable congressman for five years. I can appreciate why words like "extensive" seem subjective, but to see this GOP lawmaker as meeting the statutory standard seems awfully generous given the circumstances.

It's not yet a done deal, and while senators like Collins are satisfied that Ratcliffe meets the bare-minimum standards, it doesn't mean she and her colleagues are definitely prepared to confirm him.

But the fact that his confirmation hearing began this morning suggests Republican leaders believe Ratcliffe has the support he needs. Maybe some senators see the acting DNI -- notorious online troll Richard Grenell -- as worse; maybe some senators are prepared to vote for any nominee Trump chooses for any position.

Whatever the explanation, this is a tough dynamic to defend.