By Mark Hosenball and Jonathan Landay
(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump signalled on Thursday that he still plans to nominate Representative John Ratcliffe to be the next U.S. spy chief despite worries that Ratcliffe may have exaggerated his achievements as a prosecutor.
As he left the White House for a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, Trump was asked by a reporter whether he was concerned.
“Congressman Ratcliffe is an outstanding man and I’m sure that he’ll be able to do very well,” Trump said. “Highly respected by everybody that knows him.”
Ratcliffe, who would oversee the 17 U.S. civilian and military intelligence agencies, has touted his counter-terrorism experience while in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas.
In a Feb. 25, 2015, press release, he said he “convicted individuals” in the 2008 prosecution of the now-defunct Holy Land Foundation, a charity that funnelled funds to Hamas, a Palestinian militant group on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.
Three defence attorneys in the case, however, told Reuters they have no recollection of Ratcliffe’s involvement in either of two trials, the first of which was declared a mistrial.
“I was in the case from the beginning and I never came across him once,” said Joshua Dratel, a New York-based attorney.
“I have no memory of Mr. Ratcliffe trying the case,” said Linda Moreno, who represented one of the five defendants convicted in the second trial.
Marlo Cadeddu, a third defence lawyer in the case, said that after Ratcliffe’s planned nomination was announced she went through 12 years of records related to the litigation, including the initial mistrial and the retrial, but could not find a single document or email with Ratcliffe’s name on it.
Ratcliffe is not listed among the chief prosecutors in 2008 Department of Justice press releases on the case.
A Ratcliffe spokeswoman, Rachel Stephens, did not respond to requests from Reuters for comment.
Democratic lawmakers and some former senior U.S. intelligence officers have said Ratcliffe, 53, lacks the expertise and experience to replace Daniel Coats as Director of National Security and some have voiced concerns that he would warp U.S. intelligence to support the president’s views.
A Trump loyalist who has served for six months on the House of Representatives’ Intelligence Committee, Ratcliffe gained attention last week by criticizing former Special Counsel Robert Mueller during a hearing on Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
Trump has repeatedly called the investigation a hoax and a political witch hunt. He also accepted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial that Moscow meddled, alarming U.S. allies in Europe who consider Putin an adversary.
NOTPART OF THETEAM
The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday quoted one of the lead prosecutors in the Holy Land case, former U.S. Attorney Jim Jacks, as saying that Ratcliffe “wasn’t part of the trial team or the investigative team.”
Asked if it was accurate to say the congressman “convicted individuals,” the newspaper quoted Jacks as replying “no.”
Jacks said that Ratcliffe was “appointed to look into a collateral matter after the first trial” and was engaged in that work for a “relatively short-lived period of time.”
Jacks did not respond to requests from Reuters for comment.
In a statement earlier this week to ABC News and NBC News, Ratcliffe spokeswoman Stephens said that while serving as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, Ratcliffe was appointed to investigate issues arising from the 2007 mistrial.
“Because that investigation did not result in criminal charges, it would not be in accordance with Department of Justice policies to make further details public,” she said.
Critics have raised questions about how closely the White House vetted Ratcliffe before Trump announced on Sunday that he was selecting him to replace Coats.
The White House declined to comment when asked how much vetting was done.
Coats, who steps down on Aug. 15, angered Trump with analyses that countered the president’s views, saying Iran was in compliance with an international 2015 nuclear deal and North Korea was unlikely to eliminate its nuclear weapons programme.
Coats also reaffirmed a finding by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to boost Trump’s campaign, a conclusion the president repeatedly has questioned.
On the biographical section of Ratcliffe’s congressional website, he states that “as a U.S. Attorney and federal terrorism prosecutor, Ratcliffe put terrorists in prison, arrested 300 illegal aliens in a single day, and cracked down on drug trafficking and public corruption.”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Texas said that Ratcliffe – an assistant U.S. attorney – was never formally the U.S. attorney, a position that requires presidential nomination and Senate confirmation.
The spokeswoman said he was tapped by the Justice Department to serve as U.S. attorney in an interim capacity from 2007-2008 but was “never presidentially nominated” for that position.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball in London and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Grant McCool)