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Why Trump's pick for national intelligence director is so controversial

John Ratcliffe is not qualified to serve as the national intelligence director, but Trump doesn't much care about qualifications.
A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters on Feb. 19, 2009 in McLean, Va. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty)
A man walks across the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at the lobby of the Original Headquarters Building at the CIA headquarters on Feb. 19, 2009 in McLean, Va.

Five years ago, John Ratcliffe was a former small-town mayor running for Congress as a Tea-Party-backed lawyer. In May 2014, he defeated Ralph Hall -- the incumbent Republican congressman and Congress' last veteran of World War II -- in a GOP primary, and in January 2015, Ratcliffe was sworn in as a freshman lawmaker.

It would've been hard to predict at the time that he'd be nominated to serve as the director of national intelligence, overseeing the entire U.S. intelligence community. And yet, here we are: DNI Dan Coats is stepping down, and Donald Trump wants the fairly obscure congressman to take his place.

To the extent that a national audience recognizes Ratcliffe at all, it may be because of his performance during former Special Counsel Robert Mueller's testimony last week, when the Texas Republican went on the offensive against Mueller, the Mueller report, and the special counsel's investigation.

A staunch ally of the president from a deep-red district, Ratcliffe won accolades among the president's allies for his questioning of Mueller, which included the lawmaker's saying "nowhere does it say that [the special counsel was] to conclusively determine Donald Trump's innocence or that the special counsel report should determine whether or not to exonerate him.""I agree with the chairman this morning when he said Donald Trump is not above the law. He's not," Ratcliffe said. "But he damn sure shouldn't be below the law, which is where Volume II of this report puts him."

What was less obvious at the time was that the young congressman was effectively auditioning for an entirely different job, impressing the Television Watcher in Chief, who was paying close attention to the proceedings a mile and a half away.

That Ratcliffe is unqualified for the job seems painfully obvious. The question is what the Senate is prepared to do about it.

The position of the director of national intelligence is fairly new -- it was established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks -- and it's only been held by a handful of officials. Each of them had extensive experience in public service, including backgrounds in the military, intelligence, and/or diplomacy. Before becoming DNI, James Clapper, for example, personally ran two key intelligence agencies.

Ratcliffe's resume is painfully thin by comparison.

So why was he nominated? Because this president doesn't much care about qualifications. Ratcliffe is one of Congress' most far-right members; he's attacked Mueller and the special counsel's findings; he's dabbled in silly conspiracy theories; and he's a partisan loyalist. For Trump, there's little else to even consider.

But the Senate Intelligence Committee should, at least in theory, take some time to be more responsible before serving as a rubber stamp for the White House. The panel has 15 members -- eight Republicans and seven Democrats -- and it's not hard to imagine the committee's Dems balking. At that point, all it would take is one GOP senator to break ranks and deny Trump's nominee the committee's approval.

And, in case anyone's curious, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is on the committee.