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Does Trump’s new pick for intelligence director have the background for the job?

President Trump has long had a contentious relationship with the nation’s intelligence community, publicly disagreeing over threats to U.S. national security such as Russia, Iran and North Korea. With Dan Coats stepping down as director of national intelligence, Trump is seeking a replacement who aligns more closely with his own views. William Brangham talks to The Washington Post’s Shane Harris.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump has long had a contentious relationship with the nation's intelligence community. It has been a public spat over the biggest threats to the country, including Russia, Iran and North Korea.

    As William Brangham reports, the latest shakeup at the top is likely to be a departure in style, as well as substance.

  • Dan Coats:

    We both recognize that this position is frequently the bearer of unpleasant news.

  • William Brangham:

    It's been not quite two-and-a-half years since Dan Coats' confirmation as director of national intelligence. Now he's out.

    President Trump announced it yesterday, in a terse tweet that thanked Coats for his — quote — "great service."

    From the outset, the former Republican senator from Indiana made clear his view of the job.

  • Dan Coats:

    My responsibility would be to provide him with the most accurate and objective and apolitical intelligence possible.

  • William Brangham:

    But that intelligence included alarm bells about Russian interference in the 2016 election, alarms that ran afoul of the president's views.

    A year ago, at his Helsinki summit with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, the president balked when asked if he accepted the conclusion of his intelligence chiefs.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Dan Coats came to me, and some others. They said they think it's Russia. I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be.

  • William Brangham:

    Then, at a forum with NBC News' Andrea Mitchell shortly after the summit, Coats was clearly blindsided by some breaking news.

  • Andrea Mitchell:

    The White House has just announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.

  • Dan Coats:

    Say that again?

  • Andrea Mitchell:

    Vladimir Putin coming to…

  • Dan Coats:

    Did I hear you? Yes, that's going to be special.

  • William Brangham:

    This past January, at a congressional hearing, Coats differed with the president on issue after issue, for example, the North Korean nuclear arsenal, which the president had declared was no longer a threat.

  • Dan Coats:

    We currently assess that North Korea will seek to retain its WMD capabilities and is unlikely to completely give up its nuclear weapons.

  • William Brangham:

    And the state of the war against the Islamic State group.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We have won against ISIS.

  • Dan Coats:

    ISIS is intent on resurging and still commands thousands of fighters in Iraq and Syria.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump took to Twitter again, branding the intel chiefs — quote — "passive and naive" and adding, "Perhaps intelligence should go back to school."

    Now the president has picked representative John Ratcliffe, a Republican congressman from Texas, to replace Coats. Ratcliffe has already shown himself a full-throated defender of the president.

  • Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas:

    The Mueller report wasn't written by Bob Mueller, and that a lot of the findings and conclusions that were in there were written by a bunch of lawyers that didn't like Donald Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    Last week, the congressman grilled the former special counsel in person at a House hearing.

  • Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas:

    You wrote 180 pages, 180 pages about decisions that weren't reached, about potential crimes that weren't charged or decided. And, respectfully, respectfully, by doing that, you managed to violate every principle and the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extraprosecutorial analysis about potential crimes that aren't charged.

  • William Brangham:

    Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer warned Sunday that Ratcliffe's confirmation would be a big mistake.

    He said: "The nominee was selected because he exhibited blind loyalty to President Trump with his demagogic questioning."

    There is no word yet on when the Senate will hold a confirmation hearings for Ratcliffe.

    On that issue, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr said in a statement that he would work swiftly to begin the confirmation process.

    For more on what this means for the president's relationship with the intelligence community, we're joined by Shane Harris. He covers intelligence and national security for The Washington Post.

    Shane, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Before we get to talking about Dan Coats and his would-be replacement, can you explain a little bit more about what the actual director of national intelligence actually does?

  • Shane Harris:

    You can sort of think the DNI, as he's known, as kind of A chairman of the board of this grouping of agencies, 17 intelligence agencies in all, that you — in all that you often hear called the intelligence community.

    And he kind is supposed to speak publicly for them. He plays a big role in crafting the budgets. But really the job of the DNI was always supposed to be to coordinate all those agencies and make sure they weren't working at cross-purposes.

    This office was created after the 9/11 attacks and it was a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission that there be something sort of sitting on top of these agencies to make sure they were connecting the dots about threats, sharing information with each other in a timely manner.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the outgoing or soon-to-be outgoing DNI, Dan Coats, as we just saw, contradicted President Trump on many issues on multiple occasions.

    Is that why he's out of a job?

  • Shane Harris:

    I think that's really the big reason.

    There was the issue of the contradiction, which the president doesn't like anyone contradicting him, much less somebody speaking as forcefully about world events and national security issues as Director Coats did.

    But I think also their personalities clashed. In the time that I have been covering Director Coats, it's become clear that he is someone who will speak up when he thinks that you're wrong, will just kind of stick to his guns, and was never really a partisan warrior for the president.

    He wasn't there to carry his water politically. And he did on occasion speak his mind privately and, of course, publicly as well. So there was always friction between these two. And it was kind of a hot-and-cold relationship. And it's why, ultimately, his departure now being announced doesn't really come as a surprise to people who've been following his relationship with Trump.

  • William Brangham:

    So the president announced that he's going to nominate Representative John Ratcliffe to take over this position.

    Many of us saw him grill Robert Mueller very vigorously last week during those hearings. What else can you tell us about him and his world view?

  • Shane Harris:

    Well, on the question of the Russia probe, he is definitely in the camp of a number of Republican lawmakers who question whether the probe was improperly begun.

    The probe here we're talking about, of course, is of Russian interference in the election, but also possible linkages between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, which is something that Director Mueller investigated and found there wasn't evidence to bring a conspiracy charge.

    Ratcliffe and others believe that this investigation into Trump may have had a political motivation, and therefore kind of everything that came after it is sort of a fruit of the poisoned tree.

    And he's focused a lot of his inquiry in his positions on the Judiciary Committee and the Intelligence Committee trying to get to the bottom of things you hear about, like the Steele dossier, these memos that the FBI had from a private investigator talking about possible linkages between Trump and Russia, text messages that were exchanged between FBI personnel that revealed a political bias against the president.

    So that's really where he's been coming at it. In terms of his time in Congress, it's been quite brief. He was briefly a U.S. attorney before he was elected to the House. And he did serve in an anti-terrorism position in Texas, but not in a district that's especially known for prosecuting a lot of terrorism cases.

    So he doesn't come to the nomination to be DNI with a very extensive resume in national security or foreign policy experience.

  • William Brangham:

    As you say, there have been a lot of Democrats who have been out criticizing him and this relative lack of experience.

    Ron Wyden, who's a Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said: "Congressman Ratcliffe is the most partisan and least qualified individual ever nominated to serve as DNI."

    Is it unusual to have someone in that position who, relatively speaking doesn't have that much experience with the intelligence community?

  • Shane Harris:

    It is. It's quite unusual.

    Everyone in this position has either had an extensive background in intelligence or in foreign policy and national security at really senior levels. So it is a total break from history to nominate somebody with as little experience in these areas as Congressman Ratcliffe.

  • William Brangham:

    Given, as you were detailing before, Congressman Ratcliffe's criticism of the FBI in particular and how they began this Russia investigation, is there a concern that he seems to have prejudged that there was clearly lawbreaking during the Obama administration in that branch of the intelligence community?

    Is there a concern that that's going to make his job very difficult to do, if he has to now work with an agency that he has been pointing the finger at?

  • Shane Harris:

    Yes, there's a lot of concern among intelligence officials, current and former, who I have talked to today about that very issue, that he seems to already have a view of what the intelligence community did, how they behaved, in coordination with the FBI.

    And it's not a positive view. I mean, he really believes that there may have been wrongdoing, even talked in one interview in 2018 with FOX News about the possibility of, his words, a secret society within the Justice Department that was trying to stop Trump from becoming president.

    This is a view that people in the intelligence community just reject. They always see themselves as nonpartisan, people who may have political beliefs, but they check that at the door when they come into work.

    So if you have got someone running the intelligence community overseeing it who kind of already has this preconceived notion of how conspiracies have blossomed that just run totally counter to the ethic of the intelligence community, that's going to create some immediate friction.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Shane Harris of The Washington Post, thank you very, very much.

  • Shane Harris:

    You're welcome.

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