Trump choice for spy chief pressed by senators on independence

Chris Strohm and Steven T. Dennis

Senators pressed Representative John Ratcliffe about how independent he’ll be if confirmed as the nation’s top spy chief, reflecting concern that President Donald Trump is seeking a loyalist to oversee intelligence agencies he’s long suspected of being against him.

“Unfortunately, what we have seen from the president, ever since he came into office, is an unrelenting and undeserved political attack upon the professional women and men of our intelligence agencies,” Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said in an opening statement. “The president attacks our intelligence agencies for one simple reason: because unvarnished truth and unembellished analysis are not welcome in this White House.”

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, gives an opening statement before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May. 5, 2020. The panel is considering Ratcliffe's nomination for director of national intelligence.

Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican and former federal prosecutor, appeared Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee for a confirmation hearing to become the next director of national intelligence. He withdrew from consideration for the post last year amid tepid Republican support and accusations that he’d exaggerated his qualifications.

The hearing is the first since the Senate’s return to Washington amid the Covid-19 outbreak, and senators sought to maintain social distancing in the hearing room, with members cycling in for their turns at questioning. The testimony also came amid increasing pressure by the administration for intelligence agencies to blame China for the scale of the pandemic that began there.

“We must understand the geopolitical and economic impacts of COVID-19, as well as China’s role in the spread of the virus,” Ratcliffe said in prepared testimony.

If confirmed as intelligence chief, he said, “You have my commitment to deliver accurate and objective intelligence, and to speak truth to power, be that with this Committee or within the administration,” Ratcliffe said.

Defending his qualifications, Ratcliffe said that as a federal prosecutor in Texas “my daily responsibilities involved managing, directing and prosecuting national security and terrorism-related matters.” He said he gained appreciation for “the critical importance of timely, accurate, and objective intelligence in keeping Americans safe.”

Senator Richard Burr, the panel’s Republican chairman, said in a time of crisis the members of the intelligence community “deserve, and the country needs, the certainty of a permanent, Senate-confirmed director of national intelligence.”

Ratcliffe, the former mayor of Heath, Texas, became a Trump favorite after he stood out in 2018 – along with current White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and other conservative lawmakers – on a House task force pursuing the theory that anti-Trump bias and support for Democrat Hillary Clinton tainted the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe early on.

Mueller Critic

He eventually became a leading House critic of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. The White House took note of his aggressive questioning of Mueller before the House Judiciary Committee in July 2019.

Ratcliffe’s nomination looks likely to pass, as several senators cite the need for the intelligence community to have a confirmed leader nine months after the departure of former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who rebuked Trump’s embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denials of election interference.

In addition, some senators may see little benefit in stalling Ratcliffe’s nomination. Trump has already installed Ric Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as interim director. Democrats portrayed him as a fierce Trump booster.

“An acting DNI with no experience in intelligence but with plenty of political loyalty to the president has been appointed to oversee America’s intelligence enterprise,” Warner said. Addressing Ratcliffe, the Virginia senator said, “Some have suggested that your main qualification for confirmation to this post is that you are not Ambassador Grenell. But frankly, that is not enough.”