Special: Coats out, Ratcliffe withdrawn as next DNI remains unsettled

Aug. 02, 2019 AT 9:20 p.m. EDT

The panelists discussed the recent resignation of Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, along with President Donald Trump’s controversial nomination -- and later withdrawal -- of U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe. The panelists also discussed the state of the election security bill recently blocked by Mitch McConnell.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ROBERT COSTA: Hello. I’m Robert Costa. And this is the Washington Week Extra.

Breaking news today: President Trump announced he is pulling his proposed nominee for director of national intelligence, a Texas Republican. Congressman John Ratcliffe made headlines last week during former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on Capitol Hill.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN RATCLIFFE (R-TX): (From video.) Donald Trump is not above the law. He’s not. But he damn sure shouldn’t be below the law, which is where Volume II of this report puts him.

MR. COSTA: The three-term lawmaker is on the Intelligence, Homeland Security, Judiciary, and ethics committees, and is a Trump supporter.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) I spoke to him about this for a long time. He’s a very talented guy. He’s a strong man. It’s what we need in that position.

MR. COSTA: And there were problems. The New York Times reported some Senate Republicans were cool to the pick and expressed private doubts. There were also questions about his credentials. His aides this week had to clarify claims about his legal work. Senate Democrats were prepared to oppose him.

SENATOR MARK WARNER (D-VA): (From video.) I’m gravely concerned when it appears that the president is trying to look for someone who will be a political loyalist rather than that independent voice standing up for the intelligence community.

MR. COSTA: President Trump wrote in a tweet that Ratcliffe was, quote, “being treated very unfairly,” unquote, by the media, and that he has “therefore decided to stay in Congress.”

Joining me tonight, Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Hallie Jackson, chief White House correspondent for NBC News; Joshua Green, national correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek; and Tarini Parti, national politics reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

Why? (Laughter.)

HALLIE JACKSON: So the unraveling of John Ratcliffe’s nomination happened slowly and then all at once, and it all culminated today. I’m told by sources familiar with this decision that there were two reasons for this. One was pressure from Senate Republicans who were uncomfortable with Ratcliffe, concerned about his managerial experience, his lack of sort of knowledge with the intelligence community and experience inside that space. The other was Ratcliffe himself, who I’m told was expressing anxiety and increasing angst to people inside the White House about the level of concern and the level of what he perceived as sort of this media distortion narrative around his job requirements. There was a sense of unease inside the White House that, hey, this is just the beginning of the battle, and if this is where we are now you got at least a month and a half to go before the Senate gets back and confirms you, and I think that that’s where this all happened. And again, this was truly over the course of hours. You look at what the president said publicly yesterday. Yesterday he was all onboard. He talked about how he thought that Ratcliffe would make an excellent choice and move forward with this, so this happened quick.

MR. COSTA: What do we – what do we expect to happen next? Who wants to take this job? Is it going to be a loyalist?

TARINI PARTI: If anyone knows President Trump, I mean, it will likely be a loyalist. The chances that, you know, he would nominate someone for a Cabinet position or an important position in his administration who is, you know, a NeverTrumper or not a loyalist are likely very low, which in the intelligence community is – can be a problem. You know, the president likes to criticize the intelligence community; he does it on Twitter all the time. But I think, moving on, we’ll see someone who likely will get maybe a little bit more vetting than Ratcliffe did. We’ve seen this become an issue with the administration and their nominations, and we’ll see what happens next.

MR. COSTA: Do we expect the next DNI to accept Russian election interference? We saw President Trump did not raise the topic in a call with Vladimir Putin this week. The president hasn’t really engaged in the Senate bipartisan report on election interference.

JOSHUA GREEN: Well, I think this could certainly be an issue for Trump and whoever the nominee is – and at this point, you know, we can only guess. That is obviously a question that’s going to come up in the Senate nomination. I think one of the reason(s) there was such trepidation about Ratcliffe is he did not seem like someone likely to sail through those confirmation questions.

MR. COSTA: What’s the legacy of Dan Coats, the outgoing DNI?

DAN BALZ: I think it is a legacy of somebody who did a job professionally, who stood up to the president when he needed to, and can probably leave with his head held high. He clearly had no solid relationship with the president, but he did the job that he was asked to do and I think he leaves with the respect probably also of, you know, the people for whom – with whom he was working.

MR. COSTA: He’s one of those hands – seasoned hands who’s now really gone from this Cabinet. Think about General Mattis leaving the Pentagon, now Dan Coats leaving DNI.

MR. BALZ: Right, I mean, we’ve talked about this, this kind of procession of people who were there at the beginning who seem to be, quote/unquote, the “adults” around the president, and you have now a totally different cast of characters. I mean, I think – you know, I think this helps, again, to elevate Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who clearly has the president’s ear and who fights the president’s fights. John Bolton, the national security adviser, is in a somewhat different place; you know, the convenient hawk of whom the president can say, well, no, he’s too hawkish for me, but plays a useful role. I think it’s interesting that the CIA director, Gina Haspel, has no public profile. She has kept her head down, very professional in the way she does that. So we’ll see what he comes up with in terms of a new – a new DNI.

MS. JACKSON: He has three people, he says, on his shortlist, and he says he’ll announce it on Monday. As you know if you’ve covered this president, we’ll see on the timeline, but he is clearly going to be discussing that this weekend at his retreat in Bedminster, New Jersey. I will say when you talk about somebody with a long legacy in the intelligence community space, Sue Gordon is one of them. She is the principal deputy DNI. There is a lot of appetite on Capitol Hill for her to be named the acting deputy – or the acting director, I should say, while the president makes his choice for the permanent nomination. It had been our reporting for the past 24 hours that the president was unlikely to do so. He had a change of heart because he said to us just hours ago that he liked her and would consider her for the acting position as well. That would do a lot, I think, to relieve some of the concerns that Josh talked about that Republican senators in particular have.

MR. COSTA: And President Trump said to reporters today sometimes he enjoys when the media vets his own nominees. (Laughter.)

MS. PARTI: That was a very interesting comment. I think he also tied it to the fact that it saves him money. So, you know, he doesn’t praise reporters very often, so that was an interesting comment from him on that front as well. Yeah, the vetting has been an issue for this administration. They’ve had a lot of nominations fall through. Vetting is not something that they’ve taken that seriously, even going back to the transition. So if he wants reporters to do that job for him, I think that’s an interesting take.

MS. JACKSON: Just to put a number on it, it’s 35. So Ratcliffe is now the 35th nomination or announced person for a nomination that has fallen through since this administration began, many of them because of concerns over vetting.

MR. BALZ: And given whatever he said about appreciating the vetting that the media does, in the tweet in which he announced that Ratcliffe was not going to be the nominee, he said that Ratcliffe was being treated very unfairly by the media.

MS. JACKSON: By the lamestream media.

MR. GREEN: By the lamestream media, yeah, yeah.

MR. COSTA: In the wake of Muller’s testimony, the House passed a bill to bolster election security for 2020. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York then asked Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to pass the measure. But McConnell blocked it. And then he defended his decision.

SENATE MAJORITY LEADER MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): (From video.) I think it’s no accident that the effort to impact the elections in 2018 by the Russians and others was largely a failure. We have passed legislation appropriating up to $300 million that’s not all been spent yet. We’re open to any suggestions people may have about how to improve the system.

MR. COSTA: President Trump came to Leader McConnell’s defense.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: (From video.) Mitch McConnell is a man that knows less about Russia and Russian influence than even Donald Trump. And I know nothing.

MR. COSTA: Why isn’t there more bipartisan support for these election security measures?

MS. PARTI: You would think there would be. Especially in the last two weeks we’ve seen Special Counsel Robert Mueller, we’ve seen Director Chris Wray really make the case that Russia remains to be a threat and could still meddle in the 2020 elections, or in the future. But we’re seeing a real resistance from especially Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up any of these measures. And I think in part there’s – my colleagues and others have reported that the president seems to conflate, you know, Russian collusion with Russian meddling in terms of, you know, what we saw in the Mueller report. So I think there’s some resistance to take up such measures because it might annoy the president.

MR. COSTA: And you’ve reported for years on campaign finance. Is McConnell also reluctant to have any kind of new regulation of elections, spending, anything to do with elections and campaigns?

MS. PARTI: I think that is definitely a concern as well. Anytime you talk about legislation that has to do with elections, he gets a little worried. But campaign finance could come up. He is very much for, you know, unlimited or – unlimited spending. He prefers that. He prefers, you know, not disclosing donors names, things like that. So he doesn’t want any tighter restrictions when it comes to campaign finance. This is something that he and Senator Harry Reid really argued about for a while. So I think that is a valid concern that he has as well.

MR. COSTA: Do the Republicans pay a political price?

MR. GREEN: It’s not clear that they do. I mean, the party really to such an extent has become a – kind of a cult of Trump that issues of Russian collusion are almost automatically discounted by a lot of Republican voters. On the other hand, if you talk to national security officials there remains a live concern that nothing has been done substantively to address the election interference that we saw last time around.

MS. JACKSON: Part of that also, though, is that – and you’re right, Josh. It is a live and urgent concern, right? We got an election coming up in a year and a half, and people take that very seriously. Part of it is there are certain things that have been done by the Trump administration, certain concrete steps that have been taken to at least ostensibly go after Russians, for example, for some of these things.

What you haven’t seen, and this is where I hear most of the – a lot of the concern coming from, is the president himself deliver a message of accountability to the Russians on this issue. So while people that you talk to inside the White House will point to various briefings, and things that people have done, and this and that and the other, the president hasn’t done that. His voice carries weight. And that’s where you see some frustration from people who say the president himself needs to come out and be more forceful about that, because he’s the commander in chief.

MR. COSTA: Is it deflating for Democrats so soon after the Mueller testimony to see so little action?

MR. BALZ: I’m not sure Democrats really expected that they were going to get much help from Senator McConnell on something like this. I mean, his position on these kinds of things has been pretty clear. He’s been very resistant on almost anything that is passed by the new House Democratic majority. And it’s almost as if you would have to create a compromise environment inside the Senate rather than having it come over from the House. So does it make them angry? Yes, it does, because I think that they agree that there is a serious problem and in one way or another it has to be dealt with.

MR. COSTA: And McConnell was quite angry this week, taking to the Senate floor to defend his reputation after some critics on the left said he was a Russian asset. That was some of his terminology used.

MR. BALZ: It’s as angry as we’ve seen Senator McConnell in a long, long time. And he – you know, he laid out chapter and verse of all of the things – of all of the things that he said rebut that characterization of him.

MR. GREEN: And yet, didn’t move forward with these new plans. And I think one of the things he was objecting to, he’s was – he’s been dubbed Moscow Mitch, I think, was the objection, by a number of Democrats. That was actually mentioned on the debate stage, I think by Julián Castro. So I think the kind of Democratic needling has also gotten under his skin a little bit.

MR. COSTA: That’s it for this edition of the Washington Week Extra. You can listen wherever you get your podcast or watch on our Washington Week website. While you’re online, check out the Washington Week-ly News Quiz.

I’m Robert Costa. Thanks for joining us. See you next time.


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