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Partisan hiring an intel problem

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, during the House impeachment

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, during the House impeachment inquiry hearings in Washington on Dec. 9, 2019. Trump has nominated Ratcliffe again to be nation's top intelligence official. Credit: AP/Doug Mills

When President Donald Trump suggested last summer that Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe could be his new director of national intelligence, even fellow Republicans pushed back, arguing correctly that Ratcliffe was too partisan, had little intelligence experience, had inflated his resume, and would not be confirmed.

What’s changed? Nothing. And yet, Trump now has formally nominated Ratcliffe for the same position.

While Trump might simply be feeling his post-impeachment oats and betting he can ram Ratcliffe through a compliant Senate, the pick more likely is cover for keeping another partisan figure in the position. Last month, Trump fired acting DNI Joseph Maguire upon learning Maguire had allowed an aide to tell the House Intelligence Committee during a 2020 election security briefing that Russia was again undertaking an interference campaign to help Trump get reelected. The president replaced Maguire with ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a staunch Trump supporter with no intelligence background.

But federal law says Grenell can stay in the acting position only until March 11 unless Trump formally nominates someone else, in which case Grenell has the job for 210 more days — and longer if that nominee is rejected. Enter Ratcliffe.

These are very worrisome developments.

Trump has been crippling the federal government by removing from key positions highly qualified career people like retired three-star admiral Maguire who served presidents from both parties, and replacing them with people he views as loyalists. Maguire, who tried to navigate the partisan waters of Washington, was even accused by Democrats in the fall of trying to protect Trump when he decided not to forward the whistleblower complaint about Ukraine to Congress.

The president needs objective assessments of the information that flows from 17 agencies and bureaus to make life-or-death decisions about those who protect our interests. The intelligence community is expected to present inconvenient facts about a dangerous world, not just those that will not displease the president.

Remember, too, the origins of the position of director of national intelligence. Congress created it after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which exposed the lack of communication among intelligence agencies that resulted in a failure to see the outlines of what Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida were plotting. The DNI is supposed to coordinate and synthesize their work.

Trump’s anger at Maguire confirms the president’s persistent paranoia about the legitimacy of his 2016 election being undermined. It comes as doubts build about the nation’s readiness to protect the 2020 election from outside interference. And his removal of Maguire is shadowed by the chilling news that conservative activists, including Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ wife, have been making lists of disloyal officials for Trump to fire. Certainly, Grenell’s initial moves — including replacing a career professional as his deputy with a Trump conspiracy theorist — are deeply concerning.

The intelligence community is not without flaws. But it must remain resolutely apolitical to be effective. The president, of all people, should insist on that. 

 — The editorial board