Not long ago, it was unheard of for the director of national intelligence to step out in public and run interference for a president’s undocumented character assassinations against his opponent.
But part of the Trump administration’s eye-popping role in helping the president's reelection campaign involves the head of the U.S. intelligence community, John Ratcliffe.
Ratcliffe's ascent had begun, and was interrupted, when he inflated his resume, giving himself more national-security props than he’d earned.
In the summer of 2019, after Trump trumpeted his name for the intelligence job, key Republicans in Congress sent word that Ratcliffe didn't have the legally required national-security credentials. Colleagues said he wasn't all that involved in the House Intelligence Committee where he was assigned.
Then there was the bio he posted while he was a congressman from Texas.
When he was U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas, Ratcliffe said, he oversaw the arrest of 300 immigrants in the country illegally during a one-day raid at a poultry plant in 2008. At best, he played a smaller role in a smaller operation involving several prosecutors' offices, according to The Washington Post.
Ratcliffe also said he personally convicted terrorists accused of funneling money to Hamas. It turned out he investigated issues related to an initial mistrial, but he didn’t actually prosecute the case.
Ratcliffe also had said President George W. Bush appointed him as "chief of anti-terrorism and national security in the Eastern District of Texas." No such post existed.
His name was withdrawn in a hurry from Senate consideration.
But for Trump, the ability to do a difficult job is known to draw less interest than a person's TV presentation. In the House impeachment hearings, Ratcliffe gave a performance that won rave reviews from the president.
In those proceedings, Ratcliffe worked to explain away Trump’s failed pressure to get Ukraine officials to help smear his then-prospective opponent Joe Biden.
"Is it ever OK to invite a foreign government to become involved in an election involving a political opponent? The answer is yes! It better be. We do it all the time," Ratcliffe said during a hearing on Dec. 12.
The congressman soon became part of Trump's legal team for the Senate impeachment trial. Thus politically redeemed, Ratcliffe was nominated again and confirmed for the DNI job by the Senate's GOP majority in May.
In the job, he is clearly determined to represent Trump's interests.
On Monday, Ratcliffe told Fox Business News that Trump supporters' distribution of materials from what is officially described as Hunter Biden's laptop was "not part of some Russian disinformation campaign."
But the provenance and meaning of the materials remain unclear.
Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said this week of Ukrainian legislator Andrii Derkach, with whom he tried to dig up Biden dirt: "The chance that Derkach is a Russian spy is no better than 50/50."
"No better"? In fact, Trump's Treasury Department publicly declared Derkach to be an "active Russian agent."
Matthew Miller, a former Justice Department public affairs director, told the national security news site Defense One: "Obviously, Ratcliffe isn't a credible voice, and it seems pretty clear he's just playing the political role he was appointed for in the first place."
Russian election interference remains as nasty an issue as ever. Just this week, the Justice Department — under Attorney General William Barr — accused six members of the Russian intel agency GRU of participation in big cyberattacks, including distribution of malware that damaged U.S. critical infrastructure.
Ratcliffe seems to be playing an opposite role from that of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious-disease official who is on the White House coronavirus task force.
One presents what Trump wants to hear, based on skimpy professional qualifications. The other says what Trump doesn't want to hear, based on independent expertise. Which of them deserves to be believed?