U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is joining many of his fellow Republicans in taking a wait-and-see approach to President Donald Trump’s nominee for national intelligence director, Texas Congressman John Ratcliffe, even as critics assail his lack of qualifications for the job.
McConnell said Tuesday that he looks forward to meeting with Ratcliffe and discussing his background. Democrats have criticized Trump’s selection of the Texas Republican, noting his lack of experience compared to those who have previously held the office. They say Ratcliffe, a vocal skeptic of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, has shown himself too partisan for a position that is designed to objectively oversee the nation’s intelligence agencies.
Trump did little to assuage concerns, saying of Ratcliffe on Tuesday: “I think we need somebody like that there. We need somebody strong that can really rein it in. Because, as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok. They’ve run amok.”
Ratcliffe if confirmed would replace Dan Coats, a former Indiana senator who had broad support in Congress and had repeatedly clashed with Trump.
Trump said Coats is a good man, and that it was “confusion more than conflict” between them. Coats “made statements and they were a little confused,” Trump said, without naming what those statements were.
McConnell, R-Ky., said that “generally speaking, I’d lean toward the president’s nominees.” But he declined to fully endorse Ratcliffe, who served as a mayor of a small Texas town and a U.S. attorney before being elected to Congress in 2014.
McConnell’s comments come as several of his GOP colleagues, including some members of the Senate intelligence committee that will vote on the nomination, have said they didn’t know – or had never even heard of – the three-term congressman. Some have said they will have to find out more about Ratcliffe before deciding whether he’s the right replacement for Coats, who stayed away from partisan politics during his tenure and was steadfast in saying Russia had interfered in the election, despite the president’s skepticism.
Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a critical swing vote for the GOP who sits on the intelligence panel, praised Coats and said the intelligence position is very important to her because she co-wrote the legislation that created it 15 years ago. She said she had never heard of Ratcliffe before last week, so she couldn’t comment on his qualifications, but added that she wants “an independent, well-qualified individual in that post.”
Another member of the committee, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, said he didn’t know Ratcliffe and would wait to meet with him to make any decisions. “I’m open on this,” he said.
Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, a Republican who is a former member of the committee, appeared more concerned, saying Tuesday that Ratcliffe will have “some catching up to do” in the role. He said Coats, who had spent decades in Washington, clearly had more experience.
“Is he qualified for that job?” Lankford asked, referring to Ratcliffe. “He’s a qualified, gifted individual, but I think it will take some time for him to do some on the job training to be able to get into it.”
On Sunday, shortly after Trump’s Twitter announcement that Coats would be leaving and he’d picked Ratcliffe to replace him, McConnell lavished praise on Coats, calling him a leader who would deliver “unvarnished hard truths” and protect the intelligence community’s work from political or analytical bias.
“Very often the news these briefings bring is unpleasant, but it is essential that we be confronted with the facts,” McConnell said. “Dan Coats was such a leader.”
McConnell’s statement did not mention Ratcliffe.
Other Senate Republicans were more vocal in supporting the Texas congressman. Sen. Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence panel, said Monday that he “will work aggressively” to push the nomination through his panel once the White House sends it to Congress. “I don’t have any concerns,” Burr told reporters.
Democrats have lined up in opposition to Ratcliffe’s nomination, with many pointing to his aggressive questioning of Mueller when the former special counsel testified in the House last week. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters that Ratcliffe is “so partisan” that he is “exactly the wrong person” for the job.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a senior Democrat on the intelligence panel, said in a statement that Ratcliffe “has served for four years in the House and was mayor of a small town in Texas. This isn’t a learn-as-you-go position and shouldn’t be given out to political supporters.”