The First Nomination as Tragedy, the Second as Farce

John Ratcliffe’s nomination exposes a Senate majority that has ceded its powers to Trump.

Andrew Harnik / AP

If at first you don’t succeed, you can always hope the Senate’s fecklessness will rescue you. Just ask Representative John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican and—for the second time—President Donald Trump’s pick for director of national intelligence.

Trump announced plans to nominate Ratcliffe to the post last summer, then withdrew him, after it became clear that Ratcliffe had practically no qualifications for the job, and those he did have were badly misrepresented. Yet now Ratcliffe seems like he might actually end up as DNI. This week, Senator Susan Collins, the Republican from Maine, said she’d support his nomination in committee, meaning he’s likely to go to the full Senate for a vote.

It’s a travesty that Ratcliffe would be nominated and a travesty that he’d be confirmed. The path to this travesty is Trump’s abuse of the power to appoint acting officials, and the Senate’s decision to surrender to it. Trump has exercised his prerogative to name acting officials far more than any previous president—and not just to fill jobs until a permanent holder can be confirmed. Instead, Trump prefers to use acting officials because he knows they’re beholden to him and not to the Senate, and they can be easily removed if his mercurial temper turns against them. “I like acting because I can move so quickly,” he said last year. “It gives me more flexibility.”

As I noted at the time, this is an end run around the Constitution’s delegation to the Senate of the responsibility to “advise and consent” on appointments. There’s a vibrant scholarly debate over just how aggressive the Senate’s vetting should be—with the answer often inversely proportional to how much the scholar in question supports the president. Usually, Trump drives a bulldozer through that debate by simply not giving the Senate a chance. But in the case of the DNI job, Trump has cleverly decided to offer the Senate two awful options, and the Senate has meekly acquiesced, with the result that senators now have a choice between an offensive, unqualified Trump toady as acting director, or an offensive, unqualified Trump toady as permanent director.

It’s easy to forget that Trump once had a well-respected director of national intelligence, the former Senator Dan Coats. Too well-respected for the White House’s taste, in fact. Although Coats was able to thread the needle of telling Trump harsh truths for a while, his integrity and independence eventually became too much for the president to bear, and he ushered him out in summer 2019.

Trump then announced he’d nominate Ratcliffe, a largely unknown congressman since 2015 who’d recently begun to make a name for himself as a noisy defender of the president on the House Intelligence Committee. Within a week, however, Trump had reversed himself, after senators made clear, in their quietly harrumphing way, that they had no interest in confirming Ratcliffe, despite the tradition of rubber-stamping members of Congress for Cabinet jobs as a professional courtesy.

It wasn’t just that Ratcliffe would have been the least qualified DNI in the position’s short history, dating back to post-9/11 intelligence-community reforms; it was that even the weak résumé he did have was embellished. Nominating qualified candidates is a good idea in general, but in the case of the DNI, it’s required by law: “Any individual nominated for appointment as Director of National Intelligence shall have extensive national security expertise.” Not only did Ratcliffe not have that, but he’d overstated what he did have. He claimed that as a U.S. Attorney in eastern Texas he had tried suspects who funneled money to Hamas, but he had not; he hadn’t even been a confirmed U.S. Attorney, and his claims to have overseen terrorism prosecutions didn’t hold up.

Ratcliffe asked to withdraw from consideration, and Trump, who hadn’t yet gotten around to actually sending the nomination—he likes to float names the same way he likes acting officials—acquiesced. Senators clapped themselves on their metaphorical backs, congratulating themselves on restraining Trump.

But the president was scheming to flank them. First, he refused to allow the well-liked deputy director of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to become the acting director, deeming her too independent. He instead appointed Joseph Maguire, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting director. But Maguire proved too honest for Trump’s tastes too, after he allowed lawmakers to be briefed on Russian interference in the 2020 election.

In February, Maguire in turn was nudged out, and Trump replaced him with Ric Grenell, an irascible former John Bolton protégé who had improbably become the ambassador to Germany. Grenell’s hire induced howls in Washington, where it’s hard to find anyone—including newly arrived interns—who hasn’t been on the receiving end of a Grenell snit fit.

The bad news was that Grenell was a Trump loyalist and bomb-thrower with no experience in intelligence. His appointment was transparently intended to exert some White House control over an intelligence community Trump didn’t trust. It also made a mockery of the acting authority, because Grenell wasn’t in the intelligence community and had no truly relevant experience.

The good news was that Grenell was only the acting director, and his term as director was limited by law: He’d have to leave in mid-March unless a new director had been nominated but not yet confirmed. In late February, when Trump announced plans to nominate Ratcliffe once more, it was interpreted by some as a feint: Trump didn’t really think Ratcliffe would fare better his second time around, but nominating him would allow Grenell to stay in place and continue doing Trump’s bidding. Thus the pernicious genius of Trump’s plan: Senators would either have to hold their noses and confirm Ratcliffe, or hold their noses and let Grenell stick around.

“We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” a Democratic aide told NBC News at the time. “It’s a terrible dilemma.”

Well, sort of. The Senate is in a terrible dilemma only because it has allowed Trump to maneuver it into one. If it wanted to rein in Trump’s abuse of the appointment of acting officials, it could do so: Place an embargo on other picks. Pass new legislation. Cut funding. But the Senate has no stomach for that sort of hardball. Republicans have opted to fall in line behind the president—even Collins, a moderate who likes to wring her hands over his trespasses—and Democrats are powerless to stop them. It’s similar to the way Congress has largely abdicated its power of declaring war to the White House; coincidentally, the Senate on Thursday failed to override Trump’s veto of a resolution barring him from attacking Iran without congressional say-so.

Having allowed itself to be forced into the dilemma, the Senate is slouching toward confirming Ratcliffe. During committee hearings, Ratcliffe mouthed all the usual pieties about shooting straight and speaking hard truths and remaining independent. Nominees stretch the truth in confirmation hearings all the time, but these promises wouldn’t fool anyone who’s ever observed Ratcliffe in a House Intelligence Committee hearing. Except, apparently, a U.S. senator.