Prior to last week, most Americans had never heard of John Ratcliffe. But in the testimony of former special counsel Robert Mueller before the House Judiciary and Intelligence committees, the second-term Republican Texas congressman put on quite a show.
He berated Mueller, the former head of the FBI, for stating that President Donald Trump was not fully exonerated in his eponymous report on his findings of the nearly two-year-long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and the possibility of obstruction of justice by the President.
Ratcliffe took particular issue with the second volume of Mueller’s report, which details seemingly obstructive behavior by the President. Here’s the key bit:
“So Americans need to know this, as they listen to the Democrats and socialists on the other side of the aisle, as they do dramatic readings from this report: that Volume 2 of this report was not authorized under the law to be written. It was written to a legal standard that does not exist at the Justice Department. And it was written in violation of every DOJ principle about extra-prosecutorial commentary.”
And then, suddenly, everyone in the political world had heard of Ratcliffe. Even as the buzz — both good and bad — from his attacks on Mueller began circulating, the news that he was under serious consideration to be the next Director of National Intelligence began to spill out into public view.
What a coincidence! A guy in the mix for a top job in the intelligence community decides to use the platform afforded him by the Mueller hearing to make a very clear impression on someone he knows was watching the hearing very intently: Donald Trump.
And here comes the truly amazing part, courtesy of a tweet from Trump himself on Sunday night:
“I am pleased to announce that highly respected Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas will be nominated by me to be the Director of National Intelligence. A former U.S. Attorney, John will lead and inspire greatness for the Country he loves.”
So consider the timeline: On Wednesday, Ratcliffe makes a name for himself by savaging Mueller and insisting that the whole obstruction of justice part of the report is “extra-prosecutorial” and should have never been produced — all of which is absolute music to Trump’s ears. Five days later — whammo! — Dan Coats, the current DNI has decided to resign and Ratcliffe is named in his place.
What’s amazing about all of this is that there isn’t even any attempt to suggest that a) Ratcliffe was trying out for the DNI job during the Mueller hearing or b) his performance in that tryout is what got him the job.
This, from CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Jeremy Herb and Manu Raju, is telling in that regard:
“Ratcliffe had been under consideration for an administration position for a while but was considered by some inside the West Wing to be too nice, according to an official familiar with the dynamic. They didn’t think he was aggressive enough, but his aggressive questioning of Mueller on Wednesday changed the thinking on that.“
What these past five days reinforce is the distinctly performative nature of the Trump presidency. He is someone whose lens on the world is cable TV so the better you perform on that medium, the more esteem Trump holds you in.
It has ever been thus. A December 2016 Washington Post story headlined “Donald Trump is holding a government casting call. He’s seeking ‘the look’” got to that reality nicely:
“The parade of potential job-seekers passing a bank of media cameras to board the elevators at Trump Tower has the feel of a casting call. It is no coincidence that a disproportionate share of the names most mentioned for jobs at the upper echelon of the Trump administration are familiar faces to obsessive viewers of cable news — of whom the president-elect is one.”
Trump isn’t wrong that the ability to perform when the lights go up is of real value for anyone in such a prominent political position. The problem — as has been demonstrated by his unprecedented Cabinet turnover — is that he appears to put stock primarily in the performative aspects of the job, rather than balancing experience, readiness, temperament and the ability to actually do the job. Judging from Trump’s picks as his first term has worn on, he prizes performance and personal loyalty above all else — including qualifications.
Which brings me back to Ratcliffe. Yes, he has served as a US attorney and a federal terrorism prosecutor. But he is best known — prior to coming to Congress — as the mayor of a town called Heath in Texas, which has a population of under 9,000.
That’s not to say Ratcliffe can’t and won’t do the job — if he gets confirmed by the Senate (which remains an “if.”) It is to say that none of his past qualifications are what tipped the scales for Ratcliffe. His performance last Wednesday in attacking Mueller played an outsized role in getting him this job. Which tells you a lot — actually everything — you need to know about how Trump looks at the world.