Room at the Top (2)

Aug 3: Following our story that Republican senator John Ratcliffe had been nominated to replace Dan Coats as Director of National Security, his nomination has now been withdrawn by Donald Trump. Most mainstream news sources reported that the reason for the withdrawal was that Trump realised that he was going to find it very hard to get Congressional approval of Ratcliffe, with even some of his own supporters indicating reluctance. Ratcliffe’s lack of relevant experience was cited as a key weakness. All of this is true, but it is not the whole story.

The background amongst “those in the know” is that the agencies themselves found the appointment to be more than they could stomach. Knowing that there was no point going to the President, they had begun to privately lobby key members of Congress to stop the appointment. There are reports that even Gina Haspel, “the Thailand Torturer”, who was Trump’s appointment at the CIA, joined this lobby. She has been making strenuous efforts recently to rehabilitate her image at the Agency and this appears to be a part of that aim. It was this surge of intelligence service leaders (and retired leaders) that White House officials detected and, realising that they would be heading for defeat, they advised the President to back down.

An interesting question is: why did they decide to move now after taking so much abuse from President Trump for so long? It appears that the final straw was Ratcliffe’s treatment of former FBI Director Robert Meuller at the recent Congressional hearings. We reported on 29 July how Ratcliffe had repeatedly denigrated a long standing and loyal government servant and had been praised by the right wing US media outlets. But, in the US intelligence community, which does not always speak with one voice, there has been widespread admiration for the way that Meuller has steered a fiercely apolitical line through the stormiest of waters. It would have been so easy for him to have declared his findings one way or the other in the face of tremendous pressure from both political wings. Instead he has stuck resolutely to reporting exactly what his team has found, a result which pleased no-one, but represented his absolute duty as a public servant.

Trump followed this up by backing Ratcliffe and saying: “We need somebody strong that can really rein it in because, as I think you have all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok.” This is astounding language from a US President about his own intelligence services and signalled what sort of leader Ratcliffe would be. That, together with Ratcliffe’s appalling treatment of Meuller, was enough for the leadership of the agencies to call time on Ratcliffe’s appointment.

This does not mean that the agencies are out of the woods yet. Trump still sees them as a potential threat to his leadership because many of them still tend to say what the facts show rather than what he wants to hear. So Trump will still try to get one of his own into the post. However, it is now likely to be someone less stridently partisan. Tara McKelvey, the BBC White House correspondent, echoed the words of our 29 July report when she said: “…if the new Director is a Trump loyalist, the analysts [of the US intelligence services] will face a more complicated world … in which being apolitical will become even harder.” Despite their defiance, that threat to the US intelligence services has not receded.

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