WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Friday picked Rep. John Ratcliffe again to be the nation's top intelligence official, just months after abruptly ending an earlier effort to install him in the post amid bipartisan criticism that the Texas Republican was unqualified for the job.
Trump's decision meant that once again the GOP-led Senate would have to decide whether to put the three-term lawmaker in charge of overseeing the 17 U.S. spy agencies that Trump has repeatedly scorned.
Trump initially named Ratcliffe last year, but in August withdrew his name before the Senate formally considered him. The president bowed to questions about Ratcliffe's qualifications and bipartisan concerns that he had little experience in the field of intelligence.
Since then, Ratcliffe's visibility rose as an ardent defender of Trump during the House's impeachment proceedings against him.
“John is an outstanding man of great talent!” Trump said in announcing his choice in a tweet.
If confirmed by the Senate, Ratcliffe would replace Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist who is currently serving as acting national intelligence director while keeping his title as U.S. ambassador to Germany.
Trump's choice drew swift criticism from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D.N.Y.
“Replacing one highly partisan operative with another does nothing to keep our country safe,” Schumer said in a statement. “At a time when the Russians are interfering in our elections, we need a nonpartisan leader at the helm of the Intelligence Community who sees the world objectively and speaks truth to power."
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence has been in upheaval since Dan Coats, who had a fraught relationship with Trump, announced in July 2019 that he was stepping down. Sue Gordon, the principal deputy national intelligence director under Coats, left with him. Democrats accused Trump of pushing out two senior, dedicated intelligence professionals.
After withdrawing Ratcliffe's name, Trump in August named Joseph Maguire, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting national intelligence director. But earlier this month, Trump moved Maguire aside — before his tenure as acting director was set to expire on March 11 — and named Grenell as acting director.
Trump's decision to bring in Grenell came amid controversy over a classified briefing on election security that intelligence officials gave members of the House intelligence committee.
That panel is chaired by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who led the House impeachment inquiry against Trump. There were conflicting accounts about what the U.S. election security officials told committee members during the closed-door briefing about Russian meddling in this year's presidential election.
People familiar with the congressional briefing said election security officials indicated that the Kremlin was looking to help Trump win re-election, as it did in 2016. But a senior official with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said lawmakers were not told that Russia was actively aiding Trump's campaign to boost his chances of a second term. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive information.
When asked if Maguire was moved out as part of an effort to purge administration officials seen as disloyal to Trump, the president said only that Maguire's tenure as acting director was ending. He called Maguire an “excellent guy” and said he chose Grenell to replace him as acting director until he can announce a new nominee for the job.
Grenell said he would hold the post for just a few months until Trump nominated a replacement for Maguire. If Ratcliffe is not confirmed by the Senate, it's possible that Grenell could serve in the post for a while.
Ratcliffe, who sits on the House intelligence, judiciary and ethics committees, is a fierce defender of the president. He was a member of Trump's impeachment advisory team and strenuously questioned witnesses during the House impeachment hearings.
He also forcefully questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller when he testified before the House Judiciary Committee about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
After the Democratic-controlled House voted to impeach Trump, Ratcliffe said: "This is the thinnest, fastest and weakest impeachment our country has ever seen. ... When voters go to the polls next November, I hope they’ll hold Democrats accountable for wasting countless hours and taxpayer dollars on this disgraceful impeachment hoax that was designed to control the outcome of the 2020 election.”
Before being elected to Congress in 2014, Ratcliffe was mayor of Health, Texas, and a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas. Ratcliffe is the son of two school teachers and the youngest of six children. He attended the University of Notre Dame and earned a law degree from Southern Methodist University. He and his wife, Michele, have two daughters.