Trump scuttles plan to nominate Ratcliffe as top intelligence official

The president's choice had come under significant scrutiny in recent days, with many former intelligence officials expressing concern that Ratcliffe might politicize the job.

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By Hallie Jackson, Andrea Mitchell, Ken Dilanian and Shannon Pettypiece

President Donald Trump announced Friday that his pick for the nation's top intelligence post was withdrawing from consideration and would remain in Congress.

"Our great Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe is 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,” Trump tweeted in the afternoon.

“John has therefore decided to stay in Congress where he has done such an outstanding job representing the people of Texas, and our Country,” he added.

The Texas congressman himself later tweeted a statement withdrawing from consideration for the post, saying he did "not wish for a national security and intelligence debate surrounding my confirmation, however untrue, to become a purely political and partisan issue."

The unraveling of Ratcliffe's nomination to become director of national intelligence happened slowly at first, and then all at once.

Multiple sources familiar with the discussions point to a combination of building Republican pressure and escalating anxiety on Ratcliffe’s part. The situation hit a boiling point Friday morning, when it became clear Ratcliffe, 53, had little desire to stomach what would have been a bruising confirmation battle in the fall — becoming alarmed at what he viewed as a concerning media narrative.

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His selection had come under significant scrutiny in recent days, with many former intelligence officials expressing concern that Trump's pick might politicize the job.

Hours before the president announced him as the pick to be the new director of national intelligence Sunday, Ratcliffe was on Fox News saying the Russia investigation may have been tainted by a criminal conspiracy, without offering any evidence.

Ratcliffe had little experience in national security or national intelligence. In late July, NBC News first reported that the congressman had overstated parts of his résumé. Although his website says he "put terrorists in prison," there is no evidence he ever prosecuted a terrorism case.

Compounding Ratcliffe’s growing hesitation in the face of several similar reports, multiple Republicans were conveying concerns privately to the White House about his lack of experience operating in the intelligence community space. Since joining the House Intelligence Committee seven months ago, Ratcliffe has not traveled overseas for any of the committee’s available congressional trips, according to one source. (Another source pointed out Ratcliffe did join House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy for a bipartisan weeklong visit to Venezuela.)

When asked about the pick Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seemed lukewarm toward Ratcliffe — and the controversies surrounding him.

"I would lean towards the president's nominees, and I'd rather not address that until I've actually had a chance to meet him and discuss his background and qualifications," McConnell said then. It was in sharp contrast with his praise for Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats on Sunday — the day the president announced his selection of Ratcliffe with no prior notice to Coats, according to sources familiar with the decision, who then hastily released a resignation letter, in a chain of events that further angered the former Republican senator’s allies in the Senate.

Those Republicans conveying concerns to the White House also indicated that Ratcliffe’s path to nomination, while not impossible, was bound to be rocky. Some in the White House dismissed that claim, arguing that Ratcliffe would ultimately have had the votes for confirmation, had he not withdrawn from consideration. “We were very early in the process and I think we would have had good support, certainly from the Republicans,” the president said at the White House on Friday afternoon.

Ratcliffe did have backing from some key Trump allies such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who was supportive of the Texas congressman taking a role inside the administration. Underscoring how quickly Ratcliffe’s nomination push evaporated, the president had publicly expressed confidence in his DNI pick as late as Thursday afternoon. “I'm sure that he'll be able to do very well,” Trump said then. “I think he's just outstanding.”

The president’s initial selection of Ratcliffe had confirmed some Republicans’ long-held fear: that when the president eventually replaced Coats, he would select someone with little management or intelligence experience.

Now, Ratcliffe’s withdrawal from consideration is likely to raise questions anew about the White House's vetting process, with the president having withdrawn proposed nominations at least 35 times — often because nominees were not fully vetted before he announced them.

Republicans have grumbled for months about how controversial figures such as Herman Cain, Stephen Moore and others often ended up floated for positions with little apparent vetting from the White House. Reports that Ratcliffe appeared to embellish his record did little to assuage those concerns.

On Friday, the president shrugged off those concerns — and, despite his earlier claim that Ratcliffe was withdrawing because he had been treated "unfairly" by the press, told reporters he prefers to see how the media reacts to his picks first. “I give out a name to the press, and they vet for me," he said. "We save a lot of money that way.”

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., expressed relief Friday over Ratcliffe's withdrawal. "Thank goodness," he said in a statement. "Rep. Ratcliffe never should have been considered in the first place. This is part of a pattern from President Trump: nomination on a whim without consultation or vetting, and then forced withdrawal when mess ensues... The next Director of National Intelligence must be someone who is nonpartisan, sees the world objectively and speaks truth to power."

Trump said Friday that he would announce his new pick for the job “shortly.”

Later in the afternoon, he told reporters he had a list of three candidates under consideration for the permanent position.

By late Friday, a bipartisan push began to emerge in support of Sue Gordon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, who is widely respected both on Capitol Hill and in the president’s orbit for her decades of experience in the intelligence community. While one current and one former U.S. official familiar with the matter say the White House had been planning to prevent Gordon from stepping into Coats’ role in an acting capacity, the president seemed to warm to the idea Friday. “Sue Gordon is there now and I like her very much," he said. "Certainly she will be considered for the acting [job.]"

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Alex Moe, Frank Thorp V and Adam Edelman contributed.