For a nominee to helm the U.S. government’s intelligence apparatus, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) draws on some unusual sources of information.
Ratcliffe’s official, verified campaign Twitter account follows several accounts on the political fringe, including a 9/11 truther account with just one follower besides himself and four promoting the outlandish QAnon conspiracy theory, which posits that the world is run by a cabal of Democratic pedophile-cannibals—and has been ruled a potential source of domestic terrorism by the FBI.
The conspiracy theorists followed by Ratcliffe, whose nomination for director of national intelligence goes before the Senate intelligence committee Tuesday morning, cover a bizarre range of beliefs. They posit that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his death to help Trump to take down the Deep State. Others claim a Democratic sex dungeon exists in in a Washington pizzeria. But Ratcliffe and the QAnon promoters he follows have one thing in common: utter loyalty to Trump.
Even before Ratcliffe’s QAnon interest was known, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a committee member, told The Daily Beast, “Congressman Ratcliffe is a partisan politician who has spent the last two years promoting conspiracy theories in defense of Donald Trump.”
It’s not clear whether Ratcliffe followed conspiracy theorists himself, or whether it was done by someone else with access to his Twitter account. The QAnon accounts Ratcliffe follows were first noted by CQ Roll Call editor Ryan Kelly on Twitter.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred questions about Ratcliffe’s Twitter account to his congressional office, which didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Veteran intelligence officials expressed alarm that the Senate may soon confirm a Trump loyalist atop the U.S.’s 16 intelligence agencies. “Ratcliffe would be the least qualified person to run the intelligence community, ever, and that includes Ric Grenell,” said former CIA and National Counterterrorism Center analyst Aki Peritz, referring to the acting director of national intelligence. “The hardest job for any intelligence officer is to speak truth to power. Based on Ratcliffe’s past performance, it’s doubtful he can resist the urge to politicize intelligence on behalf of Donald Trump.”
The willingness of a likely director of national intelligence to entertain conspiracy theorists highlights what Democrats on the Senate intelligence committee consider Ratcliffe’s lack of fitness for the job. Two committee sources said the minority Democrats intend to press the nominee on his loyalty to Trump—the quality that earned Ratcliffe his nomination—something he displayed with zeal in attacking Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry and portraying the House Democrats’ impeachment of Trump as a frame-up job.
At Tuesday’s hearing, the Democrats intend to bring up everything from Russia to the novel coronavirus, where a divide has emerged between the intelligence agencies and the administration over whether the virus was man-made in China. They intend also to question Ratcliffe over the post-impeachment purge of intelligence officials, including several from the office of the director of national intelligence, most recently inspector general Michael Atkinson.
“He has little experience in intelligence, and already had to withdraw his nomination once after lying about his resume. The pandemic has shown how putting unqualified loyalists in critical jobs leads to disaster,” said Wyden. “Any Republican who cares for the security of our country should think hard about the consequences of supporting the least qualified, most partisan person ever nominated for DNI.”
But that attests to the expectation on the committee for a party-line vote—which will be enough to advance Ratcliffe’s nomination to the full Senate, where his confirmation can proceed on the same basis.
Opposition to Ratcliffe was bipartisan the last time Trump nominated him to run Liberty Crossing, the DNI’s headquarters, in 2019. It lasted a week before Ratcliffe withdrew, following reporting on his false claim to have arrested 300 undocumented immigrants in a single day.
At the time, Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the intelligence-committee chair, mixed a pledge of support with an acknowledgement of Ratcliffe’s limitations. “Can you find somebody that's got more experience, that's got more experience specifically in the intelligence community? Sure, but I'm not sure that the DNI requires that,” Burr said in July. This time around, Burr gave Ratcliffe both unqualified support and dared committee Democrats to “have [Richard] Grenell stay on as acting” director.
That’s a reference to Trump’s current interim director, the ambassador to Germany, another loyalist. Grenell oversaw Atkinson’s firing and the removal of other officials at the office of the director of national intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center. Last month, he rejected House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff’s request for information on the purges, as well as a pledge Schiff requested that “officials, including yourself, will not permit retaliation or reprisals against anyone who has made, or in the future makes, protected disclosures of misconduct to Congress or to Inspectors General.”
A member of the House intelligence committee during his brief tenure in Congress, Ratcliffe has distinguished himself in a crowded field by blocking and tackling for Trump. “You managed to violate every principle and the most sacred of traditions about prosecutors not offering extra prosecutorial analysis,” Ratcliffe told Mueller in July.
During the impeachment hearings last fall, Ratcliffe insisted that Trump’s insistence on Ukraine publicly accusing Joe Biden’s son of corruption was no more than an effort to fight corruption in that country. He continued, with relevance to his possible next position, “the president, as the unitary executive, is the executive branch,” a reference to a highly disputed constitutional theory popular in certain corners of the right.
“The president can and should ask for assistance in ongoing criminal investigations,” Ratcliffe said, even though there was no criminal investigation into Biden or his son at the time.
Ratcliffe’s decision to follow conspiracy theory accounts raises other questions. In Ratcliffe’s Twitter feed, accounts with names like “Hobbit Frog” and “Political Madness” pump out tweets that portray Trump not just as a great president, but as a messianic figure poised to use the military and intelligence agencies to purge the country of top Democrats—either through executions or with military show trials and prison terms in Guantanamo Bay.
The QAnon accounts Ratcliffe follows often go to extremes. In a graphic posted by one of the accounts, a screaming Trump rescues crying children from a demonic Hillary Clinton—accompanied by text accusing Clinton of conducting child sacrifices. Another posits that Vincent Fusca, a Trump supporter some QAnon believers claim is John F. Kennedy Jr. in disguise, conducted a secret arrest of former President George H. W. Bush.
QAnon has started to have a dangerous effect in the real world. Two QAnon believers have been charged with murder, while two others have been involved in alleged child abduction plots. A QAnon believer pleaded guilty in February to committing a terrorist incident near the Hoover Dam. Last week, a QAnon supporter live-streamed a trip to New York City to "take out" former Vice President Joe Biden. She was eventually arrested on weapons charges.
Discomfort between presidential administrations and the intelligence agencies is supposed to reflect the occasionally divergent prerogatives of both. But the involvement of career intelligence officials in the investigations of Trump that have negatively characterized his presidency has poisoned the relationship, with Ratcliffe being the latest sign of White House hostility to an independent intelligence community.
“Ratcliffe’s nomination to be DNI shows the bench to serve Trump at the highest levels has dwindled down to nutters, quislings, and television cranks,” Peritz said. “Anyone with any intelligence knows to decline these positions. Still, the nation continues to pay the price.”