Trump attempts to undermine the intelligence community with his loyalists


Last week, Donald Trump’s pick for Director of National Intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) blew up in his face. Rep. John Ratcliffe is already out as Trump’s DNI pick:

Congressman John Ratcliffe’s short-lived tenure as the Director of National Intelligence nominee has already come to an end. Less than a week after President Donald Trump announced Ratcliffe’s nomination—prompting intelligence officials to reportedly ask, “Who?”—the president returned to Twitter Friday to announce the lawmaker was withdrawing his candidacy.

* * *

Ratcliffe’s withdrawal doesn’t necessarily come as a surprise, given that his days-long stint as Trump’s DNI pick was quickly met with criticism and confusion about the congressman’s qualifications for the job. The Texas lawmaker, who demonstrated his loyalty to the president on the national stage with his combative questioning of Robert Mueller, was seemingly chosen for his partisan views over his intelligence experience—which, as it turns out, was pretty limited. Closer examinations of Ratcliffe’s career revealed the former Chief of Anti-Terrorism and National Security for the Eastern District of Texas’s claims of extensive anti-terrorism experience and having arrested “300 illegals in a single day” were wildly exaggerated, and many speculated that the obvious resume padding could hurt Ratcliffe’s chance of making it through the Senate confirmation process. Ratcliffe’s tenure on the House Intelligence Committee also seemingly failed to demonstrate his qualifications, as congressional and intelligence officials told the Washington Post the congressman was “disengaged” from the committee’s work. Ratcliffe reportedly failed to attend all but one of the committee’s foreign trips this year and “infrequent[ly]” visited the committee’s classified reading room, becoming known instead for “brief appearances at the weekly business meetings and hearings that the panel often conducts behind closed doors.”

* * *

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr said only of Ratcliffe’s nomination: “When he’s nominated and we do an investigation, I’ll be happy to comment on what I think his qualifications are.” Per Axios, that tepidity likely contributed to the demise of Ratcliffe’s nomination, as the White House had reportedly received word that it would be a struggle for the nominee to get enough Republican votes to be confirmed.

Even more disturbing was Trump blocking DNI deputy director Sue Gordon — a longtime career intelligence official respected by Republicans and Democrats alike — from serving as acting head, hoping instead to fill the position with a more overtly pro-Trump loyalist. Trump Won’t Let No. 2 Spy Chief Take over When Coates Leaves.

Daily Kos reports today, More dire national security news: Deputy DNI Sue Gordon resigns after Trump campaign to boot her:

After the resignation of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats late last month, a move nudged along after Coats publicly rejected several of Donald Trump’s most favored but false intelligence claims, Trump quickly announced his chosen replacement would be conspiratorial nutcase Rep. John Ratcliffe, a devoted Trump acolyte with a history of professing belief in a host of the right’s most popular conspiracy claims. That nomination lasted only a few days before Ratcliffe bowed out following multiple claims in his record were proven to be exaggerations at best.

In the meantime, however, Trump has been doing his best to force the resignation of deputy DNI Sue Gordon, also a Trump appointee but one who earned the Trump team’s ire for being “too close” to ex-CIA director John Brennan, now a vocal Trump critic.

It looks like that effort has been successful: According to multiple reports, Gordon resigned today.

Gordon posed a specific problem for Trump, whose nomination of Ratcliffe demonstrated a desire to restaff the nation’s intelligence apparatus with figures more loyal to himself and more willing to back his own oft-false “intelligence” claims. By law, she would become acting DNI upon Coats’ Aug. 15 departure. Now that she has been forced out, Trump is instead free to chose another name as acting director—presumably, another Ratcliffe-styled figure. Trump has increasingly staffed top government ranks with “acting” officials who lack Senate confirmation, and has expressed satisfaction with being able to evade that Senate-imposed oversight.

This is another significant blow to the intelligence community, and national security experts had been expressing alarm over Trump’s efforts to push the career civil servant out.

Betsy Woodruff was prescient with this report last week. White House Asks for List of Top Spies During Intelligence Shakeup:

The Trump administration is taking inventory of many of America’s top spies, The Daily Beast has learned. The White House recently asked the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) for a list of all its employees at the federal government’s top pay scale who have worked there for 90 days or more, according to two sources familiar with the request.

The request appears to be part of the White House’s search for a temporary director of national intelligence—a prospect that raises concerns in some quarters about political influence over the intelligence community.

The request, which specifically asks for people in ODNI at the GS-15 level (the pay grade for most top government employees, including supervisors) or higher, comes as ODNI’s leadership faces turmoil.

* * *

As Bobby Chesney of the University of Texas School of Law detailed at Lawfare, the law indicates that if both the DNI post and the post Gordon currently holds are vacant, then the president could choose from a fairly wide pool of people to take Gordon’s post and, therefore, become acting DNI. That includes any Senate-confirmed officials in the Executive Branch, and any senior employee who’s been at ODNI for 90 days or more—in other words, anyone on the list the White House just requested from ODNI.

It’s unclear why the White House asked ODNI for that list, but a search to replace Gordon appears to be the most likely explanation. A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With Sue Gordon’s resignation today, Trump is free to appoint a loyalist from among Senate-confirmed officials in the Executive Branch.

Donald Trump has already captured the Department of Justice with his new “fixer,” William “Coverup” Barr who has turned the department into Trump’s private law firm doing his bidding, instead of representing the people of the United States.

Now Trump is trying to capture the intelligence community and bend it to his will. Trump is following the Putin playbook. Vladimir Putin resurrects the KGB (September 2016):

Soon after he was first appointed prime minister back in 1999, Vladimir Putin joked to an audience of top intelligence officers that a group of undercover spies, dispatched to infiltrate the government, was “successfully fulfilling its task.”

It turns out Putin doesn’t do jokes. Over Putin’s years in power, not just the Kremlin but almost every branch of the Russian state has been taken over by old KGB men like himself.

Last week news broke that their resurgence is soon to be topped off with a final triumph — the resurrection of the old KGB itself. According to the Russian daily Kommersant, a major new reshuffle of Russia’s security agencies is under way that will unite the FSB (the main successor agency to the KGB) with Russia’s foreign intelligence service into a new super-agency called the Ministry of State Security — a report that, significantly, wasn’t denied by the Kremlin or the FSB itself.

* * *

Putin, who in 2004 said that “there is no such thing as a former KGB man,” has always had a complicated relationship with the FSB.

On the one hand, Putin has allowed the FSB to absorb pieces of the old KGB, chopped off when Boris Yeltsin tried to dismantle the once all-powerful Soviet security apparatus in the early 1990s. Under Putin, the FSB regained control over Russia’s borders, border troops, and electronic intelligence gathering. At the same time, former KGB men began their takeover of every institution of state, as well as Russian businesses.

* * *

Now, however, Putin … is instead consolidating power into a pair of super-agencies: the National Guard — created in July, that united internal security troops under the Kremlin’s control — and now the new Ministry of State Security. Putin will personally control these super-agencies.

“On the night of September 18 to 19 … the country went from authoritarian to totalitarian,” wrote former liberal Duma deputy Gennady Gudkov on his Facebook page.

Further evidence of Putin’s gathering of power into his own hands is an ongoing purge launched over the summer that has already claimed the heads of the Federal Narcotics Service, Federal Protection Service (Putin’s bodyguard), the Federal Migration Service and Russian Railways, as well as the president’s Chief of Staff and personal confidant Sergei Ivanov.

If Trump succeeds in capturing the intelligence community with Trump loyalists, he can ensure that they stand down when Russia, and possibly other state actors, attack our elections in 2020. He will leave the door wide open and invite such interference, as he has already done. Whose interests is he really serving, his or Putin’s?

Trump will also be able to manipulate intelligence to build a case for war with Iran, or Venezuela, or any other country his Neocon warmonger advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, can talk him into.

By capturing key independent agencies of the U.S. government and staffing them with sycophant Trump loyalists, Trump moves a step closer to realizing his authoritarian impulses to become an autocrat, just like his pal Putin.

And this is a dangerous road we are heading down with today’s report from the Washington Post. The GOP has caught autocratic fever:

Conservative Republicans have moved sharply toward embracing a more powerful chief executive with fewer checks and balances.

A new Pew Research Center poll, in fact, finds that a majority of conservative Republicans (52 percent) agree that many problems would be solved “if U.S. presidents didn’t have to worry so much about Congress or the courts.” That number has doubled since last year (26 percent) and quadrupled from when Barack Obama was president in 2016 (13 percent).

Today, just 41 percent choose the other option, that it “would be too risky to give U.S. presidents more power” to confront problems.

Among the broader group of all Republicans and Republican-leaning voters, the numbers have also risen substantially in recent years. Just 14 percent favored fewer checks on the president in 2016. That number rose to around one-quarter in Trump’s first year-plus, and today it’s 43 percent of all Republicans.

And it’s not just a matter of partisanship either. It’s normal for a party to favor presidential powers more when it holds the office, but the shift among Republicans is considerably bigger than among Democrats. While the share of Republican-leaning voters favoring a more powerful executive has risen 29 points between 2016 and 2019, the corresponding drop among Democratic-leaning voters who favor that approach has been just 13 points, from 29 percent in Obama’s last year to 16 percent today.

* * *

[P]erhaps it’s not surprising that Republicans view Congress and the courts as an impediment to the policy proposals they and Trump want. Obama occasionally decried the broken Congress and even criticized Supreme Court justices in a State of the Union address, but he didn’t ever go as far as Trump has.

A more sinister read, of course, would be that Republicans have warmed to a more autocratic type of leader given Trump’s regular praise and admiration for strongmen around the world. Whatever the case, it’s clear there has been a significant shift — not the kind that suggests the American people would sign off on a dictator, certainly, but one in which one of the two major parties has significantly less regard (or desire) for the checks and balances the Founding Fathers created.