Trump Drops Plans to Nominate John Ratcliffe as Director of National Intelligence

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WASHINGTON — President Trump on Friday abruptly dropped his plan to nominate Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, as the nation’s top intelligence official, following bipartisan questions about his qualifications and concern over whether he had exaggerated his résumé.

Mr. Ratcliffe, an outspoken supporter of Mr. Trump, has come under intense scrutiny since the president declared Sunday on Twitter that the lawmaker was his pick to succeed Dan Coats, who is stepping down as director of national intelligence on Aug. 15. The selection generated scant enthusiasm among senators of both parties who would have decided whether to confirm him.

Mr. Trump’s announcement that Mr. Ratcliffe would not be his nominee after all, also made on Twitter, spoke bitterly of the attention that Mr. Ratcliffe’s overstated claims about his experience as a federal prosecutor quickly received from the news media.

The announcement was another reversal for the president and underscored the recurring dysfunction in the White House vetting process that has plagued the administration. Mr. Ratcliffe joined a long list of Trump appointees who have had to pull their names after the president announced his plans to put them in powerful posts without a full picture of potentially disqualifying details.

Mr. Trump’s long and growing list of reversals on nominations, according to people who have been involved in the vetting process, is the product of the president’s own desire to announce names before they have undergone even a preliminary vet by the office of presidential personnel. Adding to the mix is that Mr. Trump often is undeterred by information that would typically be seen as disqualifying, according to people who have spoken with him.

“The process is a much thinner process,” said Robert K. Kelner, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP who has represented nominees going through the vetting process in the Trump administration, as well as previous administrations. “Personal issues that might be embarrassing to the administration, I think, are often missed entirely because of the relatively light vetting process.”

Mr. Kelner said that in the past, the White House Counsel’s Office would conduct a detailed vetting interview, distinct from the F.B.I.’s own background check that begins only after a candidate has been nominated. “The most probing part of the vetting process, in the past, has been a direct personal interview by an administration lawyer,” Mr. Kelner said. “This administration does not always conduct a very detailed personal vetting interview.”

Mr. Ratcliffe’s qualifications for the job came under a swift and scorching examination almost immediately after Mr. Trump declared that the Texas lawmaker would be his nominee.

Reporters learned that he had embellished his credentials as a former federal prosecutor in East Texas when running for Congress, portraying himself as having deep experience putting terrorists in prison and shaping the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy. In fact, while he was given the responsibility of coordinating any terrorism matters that arose for his office, there do not appear to have been any significant national security prosecutions in that jurisdiction during Mr. Ratcliffe’s tenure, according to former colleagues.

Mr. Ratcliffe, who also briefly served as an interim United States attorney in between two Senate-confirmed ones in the district, also exaggerated his role in a major, multistate crackdown on the employment of undocumented immigrants by a poultry producer.

In a statement on Twitter, Mr. Ratcliffe said he had chosen to withdraw.

But Mr. Trump had informed aides hours before the announcement that Mr. Ratcliffe would not be continuing through with the nomination process, according to a person briefed on the president’s plans.

The backtrack leaves Mr. Trump without any obvious candidate to fill one of the country’s most important national security jobs, heightening scrutiny on what will happen with Sue Gordon, Mr. Coats’s No. 2. Mr. Trump has already decided not to allow her to rise to the role of acting director of national intelligence when Mr. Coats steps down, according to people familiar with his plans.

The decision to circumvent Ms. Gordon, who has served as the principal deputy director in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, will probably upset Republicans and Democrats in the Senate who had expressed doubts about Mr. Ratcliffe.

Senator Richard Burr, the North Carolina Republican who is chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which would have held a confirmation hearing for Mr. Ratcliffe, and who had reacted tepidly to his pending nomination, greeted his decision to withdraw with an implicit note of support for Ms. Gordon’s role atop the Office of Director of National Intelligence, or ODNI.

“I respect John Ratcliffe’s decision to withdraw his name from consideration for Director of National Intelligence, and I appreciate him considering serving his nation in a new role,” Mr. Burr said in a statement. “I am grateful that he will continue serving the people of Texas in the House. As the White House determines its next nominee, I’m heartened by the fact that ODNI has an experienced and capable leadership team to help see it through this transition.”

But Mr. Trump recently blocked Ms. Gordon from personally delivering an intelligence briefing after she arrived at the White House, according to a person familiar with the matter. A spokeswoman for the intelligence director’s office, Amanda J. Schoch, said Ms. Gordon was not blocked from attending any recent briefing, but she declined to comment about what happened inside the Oval Office.

Opposition in the White House to letting her serve as acting director has raised the question of whether she will be ousted as part of a leadership shuffle at the intelligence director’s office that will be more to Mr. Trump’s liking.

A federal statute says that if the position of director of national intelligence becomes vacant, the deputy director — currently Ms. Gordon — shall serve as acting director.

But there appears to be a loophole: The law gives the White House much more flexibility in choosing who to appoint as the acting deputy if the No. 2 position is vacant, said Robert M. Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in national-security legal issues.

Ms. Gordon will retire if told by the White House that Mr. Trump wants someone else in the deputy’s role who could then rise to fill the vacancy created when Mr. Coats departs, according to officials.

Ms. Gordon, who has served more than 30 years in intelligence posts at the C.I.A. and other agencies, has not been officially informed by the White House that Mr. Trump intends to name someone else to oversee the intelligence agency until the Senate confirms a new director of national intelligence, officials said.

But the White House requested this week that the office provide a list of senior officials who worked for the agency, according to a senior administration official — a move that was interpreted as another sign that it is looking beyond her for people who could be temporarily installed in the top position.

When Mr. Trump posted tweets Sunday announcing that Mr. Coats would step down on Aug. 15 and that he intended to nominate Mr. Ratcliffe, the president hinted that Ms. Gordon might not automatically become the acting director in the interim, saying an acting director would be named soon, prompting bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill that Mr. Trump would circumvent her.

Mr. Trump and House Republicans have made clear that they believe a broad reorganization of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is needed. Administration officials and House Republicans also have said they would like someone at the agency who will work well with Attorney General William P. Barr, who has ordered a review of the intelligence agencies’ support for the F.B.I. as the bureau sought to understand Moscow’s covert efforts to tilt the 2016 election, including any links to the Trump campaign.

The White House has bypassed the legally prescribed usual order of succession to appoint acting officials at several agencies, including the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Justice and Homeland Security. It has obtained the approval of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel to not follow succession statutes by instead invoking the complex Federal Vacancies Reform Act.

Under the Vacancies Reform Act, a president may pick someone other than a No. 2 official to serve as acting head of an agency so long as that appointee is either a sufficiently senior official at the same agency or is currently serving in a Senate-confirmed position in the broader executive branch.

Mr. Chesney noted that certain language in the 2004 law that created the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is written more restrictively and in a way that he said strongly indicates Congress did not intend for the Vacancies Reform Act to be available for filling the position of director.

However, he also flagged a complexity — one that resonates with the White House’s request for a list of senior officials at the office. According to the person familiar with internal thinking, the White House specifically wanted a list of “cadre” officials, meaning employees who work directly for the director’s office rather than employees of other agencies who are merely on a temporary assignment.

An alternative, less obvious interpretation of the law, Mr. Chesney said, could be that a president may use the Vacancies Reform Act to install some senior agency official other than the No. 2 as acting director, so long as that appointee worked directly for the office and was not a detailee.

He said that while this maneuver would require what he portrayed as a dubious interpretation of the law, it could create a way for what he viewed as a “happy result” — letting Ms. Gordon remain in place. The broader danger, he said, is that if the White House moves to bring in outsiders in both the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, there would be no one atop the intelligence community who had “the benefit of a career person who knows how to run the place.”

The president’s first nominee for labor secretary, Andrew Puzder, withdrew from consideration after reports that his ex-wife had accused him of domestic violence. Mr. Trump’s pick to head the Veterans Affairs Department, Dr. Ronny L. Jackson, backed out of consideration after allegations related to his professional conduct.

Mr. Trump’s picks for both secretary of the Army and secretary of the Navy both withdrew from consideration early in the administration, because of business conflicts of interest.

Heather Nauert, Mr. Trump’s earlier choice to serve as United Nations ambassador, withdrew her name from contention in February because she had a nanny who was in the United States legally but did not have the proper work visa.

And Mr. Trump’s choice of two political allies, Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, to serve on the Federal Reserve board was torpedoed because of concerns over their treatment of women.

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