Why did Trump's Intel chief launch a dubious pre-debate gambit?

The disclosure from DNI was quickly overshadowed by last night's debate, but even by 2020 standards, this was extraordinary.
Image: FILE PHOTO: U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill on May 5, 2020.Gabriella Demczuk / Pool via Reuters file

When John Ratcliffe was a member of Congress, he was seen as one of Capitol Hill's most far-right members, who dabbled in silly conspiracy theories. When Donald Trump first nominated him to serve as the director of National Intelligence, the Texas Republican was effectively a punch-line to an unfortunate joke.

Indeed, almost immediately after the president introduced Ratcliffe as his choice for DNI, the far-right congressman was caught repeatedly lying about his professional background. Senate Republicans made little effort to hide the fact that they didn't want Trump to nominate the guy.

Nevertheless, as regular readers know, GOP senators confirmed Ratcliffe to the post in May. We were reminded why yesterday afternoon. Politico reported:

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe on Tuesday declassified a Russian intelligence assessment that was previously rejected by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee as having no factual basis, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

The disclosure was released in the form of an unclassified letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), dated yesterday.

I realize this was quickly overshadowed by last night's developments in Cleveland, but even by 2020 standards, this was extraordinary. Just hours ahead of a presidential debate, the director of National Intelligence effectively released Russian disinformation in the apparent hopes of smearing Hillary Clinton -- a private citizen for the last eight years -- and boosting one of Donald Trump's conspiracy theories.

Ratcliffe knows the information is unverified and possibly fabricated. He also knows the information was considered and discarded by career intelligence officials and the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee. For that matter, the Republican almost certainly recognizes the impropriety of releasing this nonsense yesterday afternoon, of all times.

But the DNI did it anyway. He was chosen to be part of Team Trump, and yesterday offered a painful example of Ratcliffe playing the role assigned to him.

NBC News' Andrea Mitchell noted earlier that U.S. professionals in the intelligence community "are horrified," which seems like the only appropriate reaction to the circumstances.

As the afternoon progressed, Ratcliffe issued a statement that read in part, "To be clear, this is not Russian disinformation." Politico's Kyle Cheney noted soon after that this was an instance in which the DNI found it necessary "to issue a statement clarifying that you didn't just publicly disseminate Russian disinformation because your first statement made it sound like you did just publicly disseminate Russian disinformation."

Postscript: For his part, Donald Trump this morning promoted the aforementioned Politico article via Twitter, though he may not have read the content. The summary the president tweeted specifically said the DNI released information "that was previously rejected by Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee as having no factual basis."