Trump drops US spy chief pick John Ratcliffe, mulls replacement

Trump blamed unflattering news coverage for fellow Republican Ratcliffe’s (above) decision to bow out.
Trump blamed unflattering news coverage for fellow Republican Ratcliffe’s (above) decision to bow out.PHOTO: AP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - President Donald Trump on Friday (Aug 2) dropped his choice of John Ratcliffe to be US spy chief after questions arose about the congressman's lack of experience and possible exaggerations in his resume in the latest upheaval over a top national security post.

Trump announced the move five days after he surprised many in Washington by making the conservative Republican lawmaker from Texas his selection to replace Daniel Coats as director of national intelligence, a post that oversees the 17 US civilian and military intelligence agencies including the CIA.

According to a source familiar with the situation, Trump is considering Republican Representatives Michael McCaul and Devin Nunes for the job. McCaul is a former chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee and Nunes is a former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Trump told reporters at the White House he has "a list of three people" who he will consider for the job over the weekend.

The Republican president blamed unflattering news coverage for Ratcliffe's decision to bow out of the nomination process and instead remain in the House. Ratcliffe faced a potentially difficult Senate confirmation process.

The vacancy comes as the US intelligence community grapples with an array of challenges, including the threat of foreign interference in next year's US elections, the impact of a rising China, escalating tensions with Iran and the desire to wrap up years of conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

North Korea's nuclear programme also remains a worry.

Trump announced last Sunday that Coats, who had clashed with him over assessments involving Russia, Iran and North Korea, will step down on Aug 15.

Trump said he might name the No. 2 intelligence official, Sue Gordon, as acting director of national intelligence. That is required when there is a vacancy in the top job.

Such a move would likely be reassuring to many US intelligence experts because of her deep experience.

However, some Trump allies, according to the source familiar with the matter, were floating the possibility of naming CIA director Gina Haspel as acting director until a permanent director is confirmed by the Senate.

Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist and the most junior member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, had been tapped, but not formally nominated, to replace Coats.

"Rather than going through months of slander and libel, I explained to John how miserable it would be for him and his family to deal with these people," Trump said on Twitter.

"John has therefore decided to stay in Congress."

PENTAGON TURMOIL

The change in leadership at the top of the US intelligence community comes after half a year of turmoil atop the Pentagon.

The Senate on July 23 confirmed Army Secretary Mark Esper to be secretary of defence, ending the longest period that the Pentagon had been without a permanent top official, a stint that began after James Mattis resigned in December over policy differences with Trump.

Trump's previous pick to be secretary of defence, Patrick Shanahan, withdrew from consideration in June after reports emerged of domestic violence in his family.

The post of director of national intelligence was created after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

Ratcliffe, confirming he had withdrawn from consideration, said he thought the confirmation process would become a partisan battle between Republicans and Democrats.

"I do not wish for a national security and intelligence debate surrounding my confirmation, however untrue, to become a purely political and partisan issue," Ratcliffe said.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr said while he was "heartened" that the office of the director of national intelligence has an experienced team in place during the transition, "there is no substitute for having a Senate-confirmed director in place" leading it.

Democratic lawmakers and some former senior US intelligence officers had said Ratcliffe, 53, lacked the expertise and experience to replace Coats. Some voiced concerns that he would warp US intelligence to support Trump's views.

Ratcliffe, who has served for six months on the House Intelligence Committee, gained attention by criticising former Special Counsel Robert Mueller during a July hearing on Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.

Although Ratcliffe had touted his counter-terrorism experience as a federal prosecutor in Texas, media outlets including Reuters reported on concerns that he may have exaggerated his achievements in the post.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, a critic of Ratcliffe for the job, said in a statement, "The next director of national intelligence must be someone who is nonpartisan, sees the world objectively and speaks truth to power."