Spy chief debacle sends Trump back to drawing board
The White House has gone back to the drawing board in its search for a new nominee to be the nation’s top intelligence official after President Donald Trump‘s first choice, Rep. John Ratcliffe, abruptly withdrew from consideration last week.
While priorities have shifted in the wake of last weekend’s mass shootings in Texas and Ohio, sources familiar with the deliberations told CNN that a wide array of potential candidates to replace outgoing Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats are under consideration and the President is once again seeking input from aides and allies.
Several new names have surfaced in recent days, including former NSA director Mike Rogers and former Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, according to a source familiar. Peter Hoekstra, Trump’s current ambassador to the Netherlands, also remains in contention, multiple sources told CNN.
Congressional lawmakers made clear last week that whoever Trump selects as his nominee for one of the most sensitive jobs in government must not only come with the necessary national security experience but also demonstrate the ability to be an honest broker between the intelligence community and policymakers.
During his tenure as DNI, Coats was widely respected for his willingness to speak truth to power despite, at times, clashing with the President in the process.
Now Trump is looking for a replacement who melds with him personality-wise and can be a “credible interlocutor” with the administration, Congress and other countries, officials tell CNN, noting that the President believed Ratcliffe fit the bill, at least before he withdrew.
Trump said last week that he would make his pick “shortly” yet there is little indication that he is close to a decision. Two senior administration officials said the search is underway and “feelers are out.”
But as always, the situation could change at any time with a single tweet, as it did when Trump announced Ratcliffe as his first pick.
One of the senior officials said the timetable has changed because the White House is going through a more deliberative and diligent process than it did with the Ratcliffe nomination, which includes taking input from the relevant Congressional committees and national security experts.
This weekend’s shootings were also a factor in the delay as the White House has focused heavily on its response to those incidents in recent days, administration officials said.
The White House has been in contact with Republican Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who has offered some suggestions for potential candidates, according to a source familiar with the situation.
Burr’s office has declined to comment on his role in the DNI search process saying they do not discuss details of private conversations but CNN previously reported that several Republican Senators voiced their concerns about Ratcliffe’s nomination prior to his withdrawal.
The search continues
At the moment, the White House is still working to identify credible candidates as a wide-range of names continue to be floated. A final decision remains up in the air and there does not appear to be a frontrunner at this time, multiple sources told CNN.
Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney is heavily involved in the search and national security adviser John Bolton has also weighed in with specific feedback, according to several individuals familiar with internal discussions.
Vice President Mike Pence has played a role as well. Some White House officials approached Pence with their opinions about potential candidates and he conveyed some of their thoughts to the President. In turn, Trump has asked the Pence to look into other candidates and this source describes his involvement in the process as “very hands on.”
Pence’s involvement in the process is notable given his close relationship with Coats. The men are long-time friends from Indiana.
Bolton had voiced support for his former chief of staff, Fred Fleitz, who emerged as an early possibility prior to Trump choosing Ratcliffe, but sources told CNN that he is unlikely to get the job due to concerns about his ability to be confirmed.
Fleitz had discussed the DNI role with the President on several occasions dating back to February. He also had the backing of Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes, who has shared his thoughts on potential DNI candidates directly with the President, according to three sources familiar.
But while Fleitz’s chances of securing the nomination appear to be dwindling, multiple sources told CNN that Pete Hoekstra remains in the mix.
Hoekstra was under consideration for acting intelligence director during the week that Ratcliffe was the nominee — in large part due to his presumed eligibility as a Senate-confirmed official — but is now being discussed as a contender for the permanent position, sources said.
He is expected to be interviewed for the DNI position in the coming days, according to two sources familiar with talks.
Republican and Democrat Senate sources have told CNN that they foresee Hoekstra meeting little opposition during the confirmation process should Trump pick him, noting his intelligence and diplomatic experience is unquestioned.
Several administration officials have made it clear that a lesson has been learned from the Ratcliffe experience and that the White House is willing to take its time selecting a new nominee in order to handle the process the right way.
A senior White House official told CNN that Ratcliffe’s withdrawal caught officials flatfooted. He had been looked at as the bench guy for Coat’s job for a while and many in the White House did not see this situation coming.
Part of the problem was that the President tweeted his decision to nominate Ratcliffe once news of Coats’ departure was in the media — giving his aides little chance to lay the necessary groundwork with lawmakers on Capitol Hill beforehand.
Now with Coats scheduled to step down on August 15, the White House has re-opened its search in order to identify viable candidates — individuals who can be confirmed and meet Trump’s personal criteria — hitting the reset button after being blindsided by Ratcliffe’s downfall.
Several outside allies of the President and hill sources told CNN that they were somewhat surprised when Trump announced Ratcliffe as his pick just a few days after the hearing given senior administration officials had raised questions about his lack of intelligence experience and ability to be confirmed.
Ultimately, Trump appeared to brush off those warnings only to see Ratcliffe’s nomination implode just days later.
One senior official told CNN that the White House has known for weeks that Coats would be replaced soon and there’s no excuse for this, adding “traps should be run” to figure out who told the President nominating Ratcliffe would be a good idea and that he would be confirmable.
Trump shifts on acting DNI
The President’s reluctance to name Coats’ second-in-command, Sue Gordon, to lead ODNI in an acting capacity after nominating Ratcliffe revealed Trump’s deep mistrust of the intelligence community — a theme that has persisted throughout his presidency.
CNN previously reported the White House was actively searching for candidates to assume the acting role after Trump announced Ratcliffe as his nominee and that it was unlikely Gordon will be picked to serve in the interim.
Two sources said at the time that Gordon was viewed by some in the administration as someone who is not going to be the type of political loyalist Trump wants in that role.
However, Trump has praised Gordon publicly since Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration, a potential sign that he has warmed to the idea of keeping her on. A source familiar with talks also told CNN that the White House appears to be backing away from the idea of skipping over Gordon and naming someone else as DNI.
Yet, these abrupt shifts — in candidates for both the permanent and the acting intelligence director jobs — demonstrate just how unprepared the White House was to fill a post Trump knew he wanted to see change in since at least February.
While White House officials have focused their attention on what occurred in El Paso and Dayton over the weekend, one former senior administration official told CNN that the attacks also serve as reminder of why it’s important to have a confirmed DNI in place.
Among its various functions, the DNI is charged with overseeing the intelligence community’s efforts to counter foreign and domestic terrorism. They are responsible for making sure intelligence agencies have the resources they need and coordinating with other departments like the FBI or DHS, the former official said.
That responsibility only emphasizes the need for an experienced nominee — a prerequisite that is also outlined in US law.
“There is a Director of National Intelligence who shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. Any individual nominated for appointment as Director of National Intelligence shall have extensive national security expertise,” the legal statute for the DNI reads.
CNN’s Alex Marquardt contributed reporting