Senate Panel Narrowly Advances Trump Pick for Intelligence Director

Observing physical-distancing guidelines, members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sat more than six feet apart as they heard testimony two weeks ago from Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican whom President Donald Trump has nominated to serve as director of national intelligence. (AP pool photo)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Republicans pushed President Donald Trump’s pick for director of national intelligence, Congressman John Ratcliffe, closer to the finish line with a party-line vote of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The 8-7 vote Tuesday morning was held behind closed doors in a secure facility, a staple of most committee business meetings because they feature sensitive or classified information. The full Senate is expected to vote on the controversial nomination of the Texas Republican after Memorial Day. 

Testifying in his May 5 nomination hearing under the shadow of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Ratcliffe said he would act independent of his political loyalty to Trump if confirmed.

The nomination comes as concerns are on the rise that Trump is using classified intelligence for political gain. Last week, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell handed a declassified list of former Obama officials — former Vice President Joe Biden among them — who may have received secret information identifying former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a common government practice called “unmasking.”

But the president has since weaponized the list, claiming the former administration was targeting the incoming Trump team, a conspiracy Trump is now calling “Obamagate.”

But Ratcliffe claimed during his nomination hearing that he will remain impartial in the senior intelligence role. 

“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,” he said. 

Trump tapped Ratcliffe in February, after first nominating the House member for the post last summer. The initial nomination faced a volley of critics alarmed by Ratcliffe’s lack of experience to oversee 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. The president, meanwhile, accused the media of slander and libel. 

Trump has said he believes Ratcliffe will “rein in” an intelligence community that has “run amok.” Pressed by Democrats to explain, Ratcliffe told the Intelligence Committee that he does not know what Trump means when he claims a “deep state” operates within the intelligence community.

Asked if the president ever requested fealty prior to the hearing, Ratcliffe said: “I absolutely was not asked.”

The congressman is widely known to have been one of the most vocal critics of the Democrat-led House impeachment investigation, denying that Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky amounted to an abuse of power. 

But during his nomination hearing Ratcliffe said he was not interested in “relitigating impeachment” and committed to protect whistleblowers. 

“My issue was not with the whistleblower; my issue was with lack of due process in the House,” he said. 

Mark Zaid, an attorney for the Ukraine whistleblower, said after the hearing that Ratcliffe came before the committee with a balanced demeanor that contrasted his virulent partisan behavior during impeachment. 

“The question still remains which of those people will emerge in the DNI position,” Zaid said. “The ultimate answer will impact the structural integrity of an intelligence community already under constant attack by this president.”

Before serving in Congress, Ratcliffe was first a U.S. attorney and later chief of anti-terrorism and national security for the Eastern District of Texas. He has taken credit for the arrest of “300 illegals in a single day,” an embellishment of a joint sweep of poultry plant factories by U.S. attorneys’ offices and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in 2008.

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