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John Ratcliffe, Trump’s pick for top intelligence post, clears divided Senate panel

Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 5 for his confirmation hearing.
Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.) appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 5 for his confirmation hearing. (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg)

Texas congressman John Ratcliffe (R) took a step closer to becoming President Trump’s top intelligence adviser on Tuesday, after the Senate Intelligence Committee voted along party lines to move his nomination to the full Senate.

Committee members voted 8 to 7 in favor of Ratcliffe as the next director of national intelligence, following an extraordinary hearing earlier this month held under social distancing guidelines. Ratcliffe sat far back from masked senators who questioned him on his credentials and whether he was capable of acting independently of his political allegiance to the president.

The committee vote was held behind closed doors in a secure facility in the Capitol. Ratcliffe is expected to be confirmed by the full Senate in a vote likely to be held after Memorial Day, according to congressional aides.

Ratcliffe vows to ‘speak truth to power’ if confirmed as intelligence chief

At his confirmation hearing on May 5, Ratcliffe pledged that he would “speak truth to power” and resist pressure from the president or any official to shade intelligence.

Concerns that the Trump administration is attempting to use classified intelligence to political ends flared again last week, after the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, gave Attorney General William P. Barr a list that he had declassified of former Obama administration officials, including former vice president Joe Biden, who may have received intelligence documents identifying former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The practice, known as unmasking, is commonplace in government. But in the case of Flynn, Trump and his allies used the list of names to claim former president Barack Obama, Biden and their appointees deliberately sought to sabotage the incoming Trump administration as part of a conspiracy they have dubbed “Obamagate.”

Some conservatives have connected unmasking to Flynn’s late December 2016 phone calls with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who was the target of U.S. surveillance. Flynn had urged Kislyak to refrain from retaliating for sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for interfering in the 2016 election, telling him that the new administration would soften those measures.

Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those conversations. The Justice Department has moved to throw out the case after coming to the conclusion that agents did not have adequate basis to interview Flynn.

Ratcliffe withdraws from consideration for intelligence chief less than a week after Trump picked him

Senators pressed Ratcliffe in general on whether he would resist efforts to manipulate or deploy intelligence in a way that served the president’s political interests.

“Regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I will provide if confirmed will not be altered or impacted by outside influence,” Ratcliffe said.

Senators also pushed Ratcliffe on whether he believed, as Trump had stated previously, that intelligence agencies had “run amok” and needed to be “reined in.”

After initially not answering the question, Ratcliffe conceded that he did not agree. But he did not commit to publicly disavow such a claim by the president in the future.

Democrats have opposed Ratcliffe’s nomination, but Republicans have also expressed doubts in the past about whether he is qualified for the job. Trump nominated him last summer, and Ratcliffe withdrew amid criticism that he had exaggerated his involvement in terrorism cases when he served as a federal prosecutor.

Tuesday’s vote was held under new leadership for the committee. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will serve as the acting chairman of the committee after Richard Burr (R-N.C.) stepped aside last week when FBI agents seized his cellphone, seeking evidence related to stock sales he made before the coronavirus pandemic crashed global markets.