In the span of just a week, President Donald Trump announced the departure of Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dan Coats, named Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to replace him, and then announced Ratcliffe’s withdrawal from consideration for the post. Although by statute the principal deputy DNI Sue Gordon would automatically assume the acting DNI role, the president has implied—more than once—that he may seek to install someone else. Reports of tensions between Trump and Gordon and a White House request for a list of senior employees at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have added to the mystery. And the answer matters: Trump’s next DNI will likely control the process for briefing his 2020 opponent.
The question of who Trump names acting DNI is as important as who he ultimately nominates for the job—because whoever steps in following Coats’ departure, which is currently scheduled for August 15, may turn out to oversee the Intelligence Community through the 2020 election.
Why? The Trump administration has been notoriously slow to fill vacancies, even in key posts. Most famously (or infamously), Trump took half a year to successfully nominate a defense secretary to succeed Jim Mattis. But even once a nominee is named, there is no guarantee of a swift confirmation, even with a supportive Senate. As Ratcliffe’s brief nomination demonstrated, there are still some limits on what the Republican-controlled Senate will support—as there should be. And given Trump’s treatment of his Cabinet, he will undoubtedly struggle to identify a qualified replacement for Coats who is willing to take the post.
That limitation on Trump’s executive power has at least one exception. If Trump fires Gordon, he will have a great deal of latitude to name an acting DNI of his choice–without the Senate’s approval.
Federal law mandates that the DNI be “exceptionally well qualified” and for good reason. The DNI is not only the president’s chief intelligence advisor, he (or she) is also responsible for a vast intelligence enterprise that supports a wide range of missions and policymaker needs.
The Pentagon and our troops depend upon intelligence for matters of life and death, war and peace. Recent events with Iran illustrate how war could potentially erupt based on even slight misunderstandings.
Likewise, the State Department relies on intelligence assessments in its diplomatic negotiations. Coats was reportedly sidelined for adhering to intelligence assessments on Iran and North Korea that contradicted the president’s view. How will our diplomats, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, be able to rely on the DNI’s assessments if they know that the DNI was installed to justify or flatter Trump’s policy choices even if that means giving them unreliable information?
Congressional oversight committees also play a vital role monitoring and regulating the Intelligence Community’s sprawling authorities and capabilities. This oversight is an essential check on the potential for abuse of power, but the relationship depends upon a DNI who honors the important democratic principles at play.
But there is another key stakeholder in the appointment of this DNI and another reason to be concerned about how Trump fills the DNI vacancy. Whoever Trump installs will oversee and control the process for providing intelligence briefings to the Democratic nominee ahead of the presidential election, if Trump honors past traditions and authorizes it. This means he (or she) would control what classified intelligence information is provided to Trump’s opponent during those briefings, and what intelligence is withheld.
Since 1952, when President Harry Truman authorized the CIA to brief both Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Intelligence Community has ensured that presidential candidates from both political parties are well informed about threats and opportunities facing the United States before taking office. As many presidents had before him, President Barack Obama authorized candidate briefings in both 2012 and 2016, which were overseen by the DNI, who had broad discretion to decide what could be shared and when.
As I saw firsthand, in authorizing the briefings to his opponent Mitt Romney in 2012, Obama directed the DNI to treat the briefings as strictly confidential; and neither the president nor others in the White House were to receive feedback on what was discussed during the briefings, including questions asked by Romney. The same ground rules applied in 2016 when Obama was not on the ballot.
Will Trump continue this tradition, which has its roots in the peaceful transition of power? Will he authorize the DNI to provide classified intelligence information to his opponent about the threats and opportunities facing the United States? Will he do so even if intelligence about the plans and intentions of our adversaries to interfere in the 2020 election reveals they are doing so to help Trump?
And given Trump’s clear preference for hyper-partisan loyalists who are light on experience and professional integrity, can anyone he appoints be trusted to oversee this process?
Navigating confidential classified briefings to the president’s political opponent requires transparency, integrity and fairness—and it should be central to the confirmation hearings for a new DNI.
When Trump’s plans for filling the DNI post become clear and a successor is nominated, the Senate must seriously consider whether the nominee has the “extensive national security experience” the law requires. But also central to their deliberations should be whether the nominee has the integrity and judgment necessary to assume a responsibility central to the peaceful transition of power that is a hallmark of our democracy. The Senate must examine the record to consider whether Trump’s nominee has demonstrated the honor and impartiality required to provide confidential intelligence briefings to Trump’s political opponents.
If they do not, the Senate should swiftly reject the nomination.