Rep. John Ratcliffe, President Trump’s pick to be the nation’s top intelligence official, vowed Tuesday to “speak truth to power” and resist pressure from the president or any official to shade intelligence, seeking to assuage Democrats concerned about his willingness to provide candid information free from political considerations.
The hearing was the first confirmation proceeding to be held in the middle of the coronavirus lockdown. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) explained that to follow social distancing rules, senators would come in and out of the hearing room as they asked questions, rather than gather together, as is customary. Many wore masks under their chins. Hand sanitizer was on the dais.
Much of the hearing focused on Democrats’ concern that the congressman, a highly-partisan member of House intelligence and judiciary committees, would be insufficiently independent and side with the president in his persistent attacks on the intelligence community.
Several senators, including Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, pressed Ratcliffe on whether he agreed with Trump’s statement last year that the intelligence community had “run amok” and needed to be “rein[ed] in.”
After initially not answering the question, Ratcliffe conceded that he did not agree. However, when pressed repeatedly by Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) if he would publicly disavow such a claim by the president, he did not commit, saying only: “I don’t think the men and women of the intelligence agencies are running amok.”
Trump made the charge when he first nominated Ratcliffe, a former federal prosecutor, to lead the Office of the Director of National Intelligence last summer. The congressman withdrew after only five days in the wake of criticism that he overstated his résumé and had not played a significant role in prosecuting terrorism cases, as Ratcliffe had claimed during his run for Congress.
“I have to say that, while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in this hearing, I don’t see what has changed since last summer, when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination over concerns about your inexperience, partisanship, and past statements that seemed to embellish your record,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). “This includes some particularly damaging remarks about whistleblowers, which has long been a bipartisan cause on this committee.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a former committee chairwoman, pressed Ratcliffe on his previous accusations that an intelligence community employee who filed a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s phone call last year with the president of Ukraine “made false statements” and “didn't tell the truth.”
Ratcliffe replied that he didn’t want to “re-litigate” Trump’s impeachment and said his concerns were not that the whistleblower process was abnormal but that Trump had not received “due process” before the House of Representatives.
“I want to make it very clear, if confirmed as DNI, every whistleblower, past, present and future, will enjoy every protection under the law.”
Ratcliffe diverged with the president in standing by the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election — a conclusion that Trump has repeatedly questioned. But he was careful to note that intelligence agencies and congressional investigators found no evidence that foreign hackers altered vote counts — a finding that Trump has said bolsters his contention that Moscow did not sway the election in his favor.
The intelligence community and the Senate Intelligence Committee, which conducted a lengthy investigation, did not examine whether Russian propaganda swayed public opinion or influenced voter decisions.
Ratcliffe said that in his conversations with the president he was never asked whether he would be loyal to Trump, something the president is known to have demanded of some officials.
Ratcliffe repeatedly assured lawmakers that he would follow the law and said that the DNI is an intelligence adviser, not a policymaker, which prompted an exchange over the use of torture, which Trump condoned as a candidate.
When Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked Ratcliffe if he believed that waterboarding is a violation of U.S. law banning torture, the congressman answered, “I believe torture is illegal.”
When King pressed if Ratcliffe thought it would be “okay” if the law were changed to allow waterboarding, he said: “The obligation I have is to follow the law. The constitution and law of the country is the oath that I take.” He added he did not want to wade into a “policy decision,” which “the DNI should not be involved in.”
The committee heard from Ratcliffe as senior administration officials have pressed spy agencies for evidence to back an unproven theory that a government lab in Wuhan, China, was the source of the global pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 70,000 Americans.
Some senators, probing whether China bears responsibility for the coronavirus outbreak, asked if Ratcliffe was aware of any intelligence that, as Trump has indicated, the virus originated in the Wuhan lab. Ratcliffe said he was not, adding that it has “been a while” since he’d had a classified briefing on the pandemic.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Okla.) asked whether it was appropriate for the president “to set collection priorities” on “urgent national questions,” of which the source of a pandemic would be one. Ratcliffe said he thought it was.
King admonished his colleague, saying the question should be, “Where did the virus come from?” and not “Do you think it came from a lab?”
Ratcliffe said he believed that China was “the greatest threat” to U.S. national security, overtaking foreign terrorism and cyberattacks. “Look at where we are with respect to covid-19, and the role that China plays, the race to 5G, cybersecurity issues — all roads lead to China now,” he said.
Although Democrats and Republicans alike were initially cool to Ratcliffe’s nomination last year, congressional observers said he is likely to win swift confirmation in the Republican-controlled Senate.
On the Senate floor Tuesday, Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Ratcliffe “a deeply partisan cheerleader for the president” and “a yes-man in the worst sense of the phrase.” But many members are also eager to replace the acting DNI, Richard Grenell, an outspoken Trump loyalist and the current ambassador to Germany, believing that a permanent DNI will be more accountable to Congress, according to congressional aides.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said Ratcliffe is qualified to hold the position, which by law requires the DNI to have “extensive national security expertise.” Collins, who co-wrote that law, echoed her previous comments that she also believes Ratcliffe meets the requirements.
After the hearing, Burr, the committee chairman, called Ratcliffe “incredibly transparent” and said that he showed he was “more than capable” of being DNI. Burr said he hoped to hold a committee vote as soon as next week, followed quickly by a vote on the Senate floor.
Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.