The best question to ask about the departure of Dan Coats as director of national intelligence is what took President Donald Trump so long to drive him out?
Coats minced no words when warning of the threat Russia and other foreign actors pose to American elections, and resisted Trump’s pressure to insert himself into the government’s investigation of Russian interference.
The president in turn kept his national intelligence director out of the loop. When Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July 2018, Coats acknowledged publicly that he had no idea what the two leaders discussed in their two-hour conversation.
Administration officials tell me that in the last year Coats had stopped delivering most of the daily intelligence briefings to the president.
Trump’s problems with Coats go back to the first days of his presidency. According to the report of the special counsel, at a dinner on Jan. 26, 2017, Coats persuaded Trump (over objections from his other advisers) not to fire his first FBI director, James Comey, right away and instead meet with him face to face before making a decision on whether to dismiss him.
That turned out to be terrible advice for a man like Trump. Comey took notes of his early meetings with the president, and that account made Trump sound like a mob boss.
When Trump finally did fire Comey, the decision sparked the obstruction-of-justice investigation that Robert Mueller took over. Trump’s efforts to charm Comey set in motion the events that led to the Justice Department probe that has haunted his presidency.
So it’s not surprising that Rep. John Ratcliffe, the Texas congressman Trump has chosen to replace Coats, has carved out a public profile as a skeptic of Mueller’s probe.
Last week at the House Intelligence Committee’s hearing with Mueller, Ratcliffe skewered the former special counsel for sharing his opinion that his investigation did not exonerate the president.
"Because there is a presumption of innocence, prosecutors never ever determine it," Ratcliffe said.
His line of questioning has led some of the president’s critics to condemn Ratcliffe’s nomination as a reward for an unqualified loyalist. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tweeted that he was chosen because he exhibited “blind loyalty” to the president in last week’s Mueller hearing.
In Ratcliffe’s defense, he has had national security experience as a member of Congress. In 2017 he was among the group of lawmakers who helped shepherd through the re-authorization of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). That counts as an irony because Ratcliffe in recent months has endorsed the Justice Department reviews of the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation in part for potential surveillance abuse.
In 2018, then U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein began including him in highly classified briefings to congressional leadership on the Justice Department’s Russia investigation, even though Ratcliffe himself was not in the leadership or the chairman or ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.
These issues will be hashed out when he appears before the Senate for his nomination hearing. As my colleagues at Bloomberg News report, many Republican senators have been mute on his selection so far. If he fails to impress lawmakers like Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, his nomination could be in trouble.
Ratcliffe’s lack of experience can cut both ways.
The position is a notoriously weak one. In theory, the director of national intelligence is supposed to set the budget priorities for the rest of the intelligence community. The law that created the position, however, did not give the director the power to command the other agencies.
Successful directors have had to use their powers of persuasion. Without experience in the national security state, persuading subordinate agencies is near impossible.
This was a problem for Coats. Michael Allen, a former Republican staff director of the House Intelligence Committee, praised Coats for keeping the “ship steady in rough waters.” But he acknowledged, "It’s unclear whether he innovated or dramatically improved the intelligence community."
Allen chalked this up to “statutory authorities which prevent decisive leadership” across a sprawling bureaucracy.
There is a lesson here for Trump.
Even if Ratcliffe is everything the president apparently hopes he is, there is nothing he can do as director of national intelligence to shape the investigations into the FBI’s initial probe of his campaign.
What’s more, without much experience inside the national security state, Ratcliffe will have a hard time changing the nature of the bureaucracy he will lead.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun, and UPI. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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