WASHINGTON — In what amounts to a direct challenge to Senate Republicans, President Donald Trump announced Friday that his pick to head the intelligence community is the same Republican congressman whose previous bid for the job collapsed amid revelations he misrepresented his background.
Trump tweeted that he was nominating Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas to be the director of national intelligence, calling the former federal prosecutor "an outstanding man of great talent."
Trump previously put forward Ratcliffe for the post last year but abruptly withdrew the nomination after Senate Republicans began to balk. Among the factors was Ratcliffe's boast on his website that he "put terrorists in prison" when, as NBC News reported at the time, there is no evidence he ever prosecuted a terrorism case.
Trump complained on Twitter at the time that Ratcliffe was "being treated very unfairly by the LameStream Media. Rather than going through months of slander and libel, I explained to John how miserable it would be for him and his family to deal with these people" and he "decided to stay in Congress."
Trump later insisted he thought Senate Republicans would have supported his nomination despite the pushback he had received from them. "We hadn't even started, so we were very early in the process and I think we would have had good support. Certainly from the Republicans," Trump said.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, a Cabinet-level position, oversees the FBI, the CIA, the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies and is the president's principal adviser on intelligence issues.
There's been no Senate confirmed DNI since Dan Coats resigned last summer. Coats was replaced by Joseph Maguire, who'd been the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. Trump named Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany and a vocal supporter of the president's, as the new acting DNI earlier this month.
Trump has said he made the switch because under the Vacancies Reform Act, Maguire would have to clear out of the position in early March. Current and former intelligence officials, however, have told NBC News that the president wanted Maguire gone early because he was angry about a briefing his deputy gave lawmakers that said Russia is interfering in the 2020 election to aid his re-election.
By nominating Ratcliffe, Trump has set up a situation under which Grenell can remain acting DNI while the nomination is pending.
"We now have an intelligence chief who should not have been fired, an unqualified nominee who should not be confirmed, and an acting director who is patently unfit. All while our elections are perilously at risk of foreign interference. Just the way the President likes it," tweeted Rep. Adam Schiff, D.-Calif., the chair of the House Intelligence committee that Ratcliffe sits on.
Sen. Richard Burr, who gave Ratcliffe's nomination a tepid reception last year, said in a statement that "I look forward to receiving Congressman Ratcliffe’s official nomination and ushering it through the Senate’s regular order.” Burr, R.-N.C., is the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will hold Ratcliffe's confirmation hearing.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said, "The last time this nomination was unsuccessfully put forward, serious bipartisan questions were raised about Rep. Ratcliffe’s background and qualifications. It’s hard for me to see how anything new has happened to change that.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Trump was replacing "one highly partisan operative with another."
"At a time when the Russians are interfering in our elections, we need a nonpartisan leader at the helm of the Intelligence Community who sees the world objectively and speaks truth to power, and unfortunately neither Acting Director Grenell nor Rep. Ratcliffe comes even close to that," Schumer said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Ratcliffe "has shown an unacceptable embrace of conspiracy theories and a clear disrespect and distrust of our law enforcement and intelligence patriots that disqualify him from leading America’s intelligence community."
Ratcliffe, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, was among the most strident voices attacking the Russia investigation and advancing questionable notions, including asserting that "crimes were committed during the Obama administration" in investigating Russian election interference.
A lawyer, Ratcliffe was elected in 2014 with the support of the Tea Party, ousting 91-year-old incumbent Republican Ralph Hall. Previously, Ratcliffe had been the mayor of Heath, Texas — population 7,000 — from 2004 to 2012. During the same time period, he worked in the Eastern District of Texas U.S. attorney's office, and was named acting U.S. attorney there in 2007 by President George W. Bush.