Trump's spy chief pick an unknown commodity among Senate GOP

Senate Republicans loved Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. They're not sure about his replacement.

President Donald Trump’s pick to be the country's next spy chief, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), is largely unknown among the lawmakers who would confirm him, a circumstance that could complicate what appears to be an already narrow path to confirmation.

Few Republican senators, including some in leadership, on Monday said they had known of Ratcliffe or had ever heard of him before his questioning of former special counsel Robert Mueller last week, where he fiercely defended Trump and downplayed the threat posed by Russia.

"I truly have never met him,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a potential swing vote, said.

“I don’t know John. I’ve met him a couple times, seen him on TV,” said Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).

Even senators who are acquainted with the third-term congressman don’t have much to say about the Texas Republican or his record.

“I’m not as familiar with his work and what he’s done in his time in Congress, but on a personal level I’ve gotten to know him. I’d like to meet with him and talk to him more,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who serves on the Intelligence Committee, told reporters.

“I don’t know how my colleagues feel, obviously. We might have some work to do. But I like him as a person,” he added.

Ratcliffe’s anonymity stands in stark contrast to the man he would replace. Coats is a former Indiana senator and U.S. ambassador to Germany. His confirmation vote in early 2017 was one of the least controversial for a Trump Cabinet-level official, with his former colleagues backing him, 85-12.

Confirmation could prove much more difficult for Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney who has served on the House Homeland Security and Judiciary committees and was the lone GOP addition to the intelligence panel earlier this year.

He has thus far received only lukewarm endorsements from the Senate GOP and is perceived by Democrats to be far more partisan than Coats, who's considered a congenial leader of the clandestine community who wasn’t afraid to break with Trump on national security issues like Russia’s election interference or North Korea’s willingness to ditch its nuclear arsenal.

In a signal to his fellow Democrats, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Monday announced that he would oppose Ratcliffe's nomination, saying, “He lacks the experience required to lead an intelligence agency, much less the entire intelligence community.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to comment.

As politicized rhetoric swirled around what is supposed to be a nonpartisan position, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) vowed to take up Ratcliffe’s nomination when the time comes.

“When the White House submits its official nomination to the Senate Intelligence Committee, we will work to move it swiftly through regular order,” Burr said in a statement that didn’t explicitly endorse Ratcliffe for the spy master post.

Burr noted that he called Ratcliffe on Sunday to congratulate him on the pending nomination.

Despite the tepid response to a nominee virtually unknown among Senate Republicans, lawmakers are ultimately unlikely to challenge the commander in chief on personnel decisions, especially when it comes to national security.

“Everywhere he’s ever been, he’s done a good job,” Rubio said of Ratcliffe.

Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) highlighted that Ratcliffe “does have prosecutorial experience.”

“If you think about the role at the DNI, it's not that you necessarily have to have been in the intelligence community,” he said.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the intelligence panel’s top Democrat, said he didn’t know Ratcliffe but would “give him the courtesy of a meeting.”

However, Ratcliffe’s “performance” at last week’s Mueller hearings “raises huge questions in my mind about whether this individual would bring the requisite independence that’s needed” for the DNI post, Warner added.

Sen. John Cornyn said he holds his fellow Texas Republican “in high regard.”

“I have confidence he’ll do a good job.”

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.