Trump’s Pick for Top Intelligence Post Overstated Parts of His Biography

WASHINGTON — Aides to the congressman chosen by President Trump to lead the nation’s intelligence agencies were forced on Tuesday to clarify his claims that he had won terrorism convictions as a federal prosecutor, as his background came under new scrutiny.

Mr. Trump’s pick, Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, had said on his House website and in campaign material that he had tried suspects accused of funneling money to the Hamas terrorist group. But instead, an aide said, Mr. Ratcliffe had investigated side issues related to an initial mistrial, and did not prosecute the case either in that proceeding or in a successful second trial.

The questions about Mr. Ratcliffe’s résumé came amid broader concerns from Democrats and even some Republicans about the depth of his experience and his partisan outspokenness.

Rachel Stephens, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ratcliffe’s congressional office, confirmed that the Justice Department appointed him “to investigate issues related to the outcome” of the Hamas case.

Mr. Trump defended Mr. Ratcliffe as the right choice to rein in intelligence agencies, which he has long viewed with skepticism and openly disparaged. “We need somebody strong that can really rein it in, because as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok,” the president told reporters on the South Lawn of the White House on Tuesday. “They run amok.”

Those comments are unlikely to persuade skeptics in the Senate, particularly lawmakers who have been supportive of Dan Coats, the outgoing director of national intelligence. Mr. Trump announced Mr. Coats’s departure on Sunday and his intent to nominate Mr. Ratcliffe, an ardent defender of the president with relatively little intelligence experience, as his replacement.

Mr. Ratcliffe’s statement’s about his role in the Hamas case seems to be the clearest instance of an overstated résumé, but there are other examples relevant to his stated credentials to oversee the intelligence community.

While he has touted his role as the United States attorney for the Eastern District of Texas during the George W. Bush administration, Mr. Ratcliffe was an interim holder of that position, bridging a gap of less than a year between two Senate-confirmed presidential appointees.

He has emphasized that his previous responsibilities as an assistant prosecutor in that office included overseeing terrorism investigations. But examples of significant national-security cases — as opposed to more common crimes like fraud and drugs — arising in eastern Texas during that period are not readily apparent in the public record; he did prosecute a psychologically troubled Iraq War veteran who pleaded guilty to possessing a pipe bomb.

Malcolm Bales, who worked as a prosecutor in the office from 1989 until his retirement in 2016, culminating in more than seven years as the United States attorney, praised Mr. Ratcliffe as “a bright guy and a quick study” but acknowledged that he could not recall a single terrorism prosecution in the Eastern District of Texas during Mr. Ratcliffe’s time there.

“There were none,” Mr. Bales said, adding, “They are not common in our district.”

A sharp critic of illegal immigration, Mr. Ratcliffe has also frequently embellished the extent of his role in a 2008 immigration-related case involving chicken processing plants in five states that he helped bring as a United States attorney. “I am opposed to amnesty — period. But don’t just take my word on it. Ask any of the over 300 illegal aliens I arrested in a single day,” he said in a 2016 campaign statement. The biography on his House website likewise boasts that Mr. Ratcliffe “arrested 300 illegal aliens in a single day.”

Mr. Ratcliffe did play an important role in the case, helping to bring charges against 280 noncitizens who had been working for a poultry producer; the government accused them of committing identify fraud and other crimes to secure employment. But he did not arrest anyone. That was left to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as state and local law enforcement officials who worked in five states to round up those charged, according to a Justice Department account.

The terrorism case that Mr. Ratcliffe has touted, United States vs. the Holy Land Foundation, was one of the government’s most complex and prominent efforts to shut down funding of terrorist organizations in the decade after the Sept. 11 attacks. The case involved a Muslim charity sending money to Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

A 2015 news release on Mr. Ratcliffe’s House website said “he convicted individuals funneling money to Hamas.” A 2016 post on his campaign website said he had a “special appointment as a prosecutor” in the case. And the biography on his House website appears to point to the claim, stating that Mr. Ratcliffe “put terrorists in prison.” But he played no part in the substance of the case, said three former government lawyers and a former senior F.B.I. official directly involved in the case. It was prosecuted in a different Texas district.

“It doesn’t sound accurate,” James T. Jacks, one of the prosecutors on the case said of the Ratcliffe campaign statements. “But they have since corrected the record.”

Mr. Ratcliffe was asked to investigate possible irregularities that had led to an embarrassing October 2007 mistrial, said Nathan F. Garrett, another prosecutor on the case.

“John was brought in because the trial team could not look at that,” Mr. Garrett said in an interview. “It involved a jury and defendants that we were trying, so John was brought in so as not to taint it.”

Ms. Stephens would not confirm further details about the Holy Lands case, citing Justice Department policy to keep private any information about investigations that result in no charges. NBC News and ABC News earlier reported the questions about Mr. Ratcliffe’s résumé.

Working in a United States attorney’s office, Mr. Ratcliffe would have worked with F.B.I. agents investigating terrorism and counterespionage cases. A spokeswoman for the Eastern District of Texas could not readily name any national security cases that resulted in criminal charges while Mr. Ratcliffe was there, though such cases frequently result in no charges.

Mr. Garrett defended Mr. Ratcliffe’s work ethic and qualifications. He said that court records likely would not indicate the extent of the congressman’s counterterrorism work as a federal prosecutor because “most of the work of a terrorism prosecutor never saw the light of day.”

Democrats have already attacked Mr. Ratcliffe’s résumé and experience. Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that will vet Mr. Ratcliffe, cast doubt on his qualifications on Tuesday.

“By law, this position requires ‘extensive national security expertise.’ Congressman Ratcliffe appears to lack the experience needed for the job,” she said in a statement. “This isn’t a learn-as-you-go position and shouldn’t be given out to political supporters.”

Republicans in the Senate greeted the selection of Mr. Ratcliffe coolly, and some have privately expressed reservations about his thin résumé.

But one key Republican senator signaled growing comfort with Mr. Ratcliffe. Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the Intelligence Committee chairman, has pledged to work within the regular order to have Mr. Ratcliffe confirmed.

Mr. Burr had warned the White House against nominating Mr. Ratcliffe last week out of concern that the position would be politicized, according to people familiar with Mr. Burr’s conversations with the White House. But an aide to Mr. Burr disputed that account and said Mr. Burr expressed no personal concern about the choice.

Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said on Tuesday that he would withhold judgment on Mr. Ratcliffe.

“Generally speaking, I would lean toward the president’s nominees, and I would rather not address that until I have actually had a chance to meet him and address his background and qualifications,” Mr. McConnell said.

Adam Goldman and Charlie Savage contributed reporting.

Source: NYT

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