WASHINGTON (CN) — In a contentious and socially distanced hearing, the Senate worked Tuesday to install as the nation’s senior-most spy chief Representative John Ratcliffe, mere months after the Texas Republican staunchly opposed the impeachment of President Donald Trump.
The proceedings unfolded in a surreal setting with Ratcliffe seated more than six feet away from Senate Intelligence Committee members who appeared in rotating blocks to pose questions with facemasks often dangling from around their necks as they spoke.
“I know these are normally hearings where we’re supposed to see the impression in the whites of your eyes, but I’m not sure I’m going to be able to make that judgment from here,” said the committee’s vice chairman, Senator Mark Warner, squinting and pulling his mask down as he addressed Ratcliffe.
It was the first confirmation hearing the Senate has held since the Covid-19 pandemic began its blaze across the United States, upending business as usual in Congress. Only a handful of reporters were admitted into the hearing Tuesday and even fewer congressional staff were on hand. Pool reports from the Associated Press counted less than two dozen people present at the top of the hearing, a notably small figure given typical spectacle that comes with the confirmation of an official to such a prestigious position.
After taking center stage during the impeachment inquiry to deny that Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky amounted to abuse of power, Ratcliffe stands poised to oversee the nation’s largest intelligence community apparatus: the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
He will replace acting director Richard Grenell, another darling of the Trump administration whose formal title is ambassador to Germany.
The thrust of Ratcliffe’s testimony Tuesday centered on a vow he made repeatedly: to be apolitical and ensure that his priorities hinge on the provision of “timely information that will inform decisions to protect the nation.”
“All intelligence will be collected without bias or political influence,” Ratcliffe said. “Regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence will not be altered or impacted as a result of outside influences,” the former prosecutor said. “My fidelity and loyalty will always be with the Constitution and the rule of law and my actions as DNI will reflect that commitment.”
Democrats frequently voiced their skepticism of these assertions, not mincing words as they pressed Ratcliffe during questioning on whether he could retain independence from the president if the president didn’t like the assessments he might one day bring to the White House.
This factor has been a longstanding concern for most Democrats since Trump first put Ratcliffe’s name forward following the July 2019 resignation of then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. At the time, Trump said he believed Ratcliffe could “rein in” an intelligence community that had “run amok.”
“What do you think that means,” Senator Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, asked Ratcliffe this morning.
Pausing briefly, Ratcliffe responded: “I’m not sure.”
“I have never said that,” Ratcliffe continued, noting that he was looking forward to fulfilling the director slot because the role is meant to be apolitical by nature, unlike Congress.
Doggedly, Heinrich pressed Ratcliffe to also say whether he, like President Trump has so often suggested in his own criticism, believes there is a “deep state” operating within the intelligence community.
“I don’t know what that means, I don’t know what that is,” Ratcliffe said.
Democrats were also curious about how Ratcliffe might define loyalty. During the impeachment inquiry in the House, Ratcliffe railed against critics of the president, regularly suggesting there wasn’t so much as a hint of impropriety in Trump’s request that Zelensky publicly announce the start of a corruption investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, who is poised to take the Democratic nomination this summer in the 2020 presidential election.
With a far softer demeanor Tuesday, Ratcliffe told lawmakers he has already warned Trump he expects to serve in the DNI role independently.
“My position is my loyalty is always going to be to the Constitution and to the rule of law. I made that proactively clear,” Ratcliffe said before adding that Trump never asked him for fealty in any conversation prior to Tuesday. “I was not asked. I absolutely was not asked.”
Less than six months ago, Ratcliffe labeled the impeachment inquiry as one of the “thinnest, fastest and weakest” in the nation’s history, and long before that he heaped regular criticism on former special counsel Robert Mueller’s legal authority to conduct a probe into Russian meddling of the 2016 election.
Ratcliffe was so dogged in his attacks on the former special counsel when Mueller testified before Congress last July that Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general of the United States who drafted the very regulations for special counsel investigations, publicly decried Ratcliffe’s false claims.
Should he be confirmed, it will be up to Ratcliffe to declassify the fifth and final volume on the Russia investigation.
Striking a moment of bipartisanship Tuesday, Republican committee Chair Richard Burr of North Carolina, and Vice Chair Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, joined forces when they beseeched Ratcliffe to produce the declassified 1,000-plus page report no later than August.
Ratcliffe said he would do his best to meet the request, prompting Warner to momentarily bristle at the idea of the report coming out just days or scant weeks before the November election.
Uninterested in “relitigating impeachment” during Tuesday’s hearing, he said, Ratcliffe later hedged too on questions lobbed at him by California Senator Diane Feinstein regarding whether he could be trusted to protect whistleblowers, given his history of publicly admonishing the whistleblower who launched Trump’s impeachment.
“Every whistleblower will enjoy protection under the law,” Ratcliffe said. “I don’t want to relitigate what happened under the impeachment inquiry. My issue was not with the whistleblower; my issue was with lack of due process in the House.”
Republicans frequently complained about due process during the impeachment inquiry despite being given regular and ample opportunity to ask questions of witnesses or review data, so long as they themselves sat on one of at least five of the committees tasked to investigate. They were also permitted to submit questions to colleagues by proxy.
As Ratcliffe left the public hearing Tuesday and prepared for a closed session in another location on Capitol Hill, pool reporters spotted the Texas Republican chatting quietly with Chairman Burr.
“Congressman Ratcliffe was incredibly transparent. He’s answered over 125 questions from members and from the committee. There were no questions that he sidestepped today. He answered everything. And I think he did a very successful job, one, verifying that he’s more than capable of this job, and, two, will serve in an independent capacity if confirmed,” Burr said in a statement following the hearing. “It’s my intent to run this nomination as quickly through the committee as possible — possibly next week — and then hopefully work with the majority leader to get to the floor quickly so we can have a permanent DNI in place.”
Mark Zaid, one of the attorneys for the whistleblower who sparked Trump’s impeachment, offered a different analysis Tuesday of Ratcliffe’s testimony.
“As an experienced politician, Congressman Ratcliffe displayed a completely different individual today with a balanced demeanor versus the virulent partisan seen during impeachment hearings,” Zaid said in an interview. “The question still remains which of those people will emerge in the DNI position. The ultimate answer will impact the structural integrity of an intelligence community already under constant attack by this president.”
It was Ratcliffe’s response to a question about whether he would support the U.S. government’s possible warrantless surveillance of Americans that troubled Jake Laperruque, senior counsel for the Constitution Project at the Project on Government Oversight.
“On this and other issues such as enforcing whistleblower protections he was evasive and only vaguely said he would ‘follow the law’ rather than any substantive action,” Laperruque said. “But a fair reading of the law can be very different from White House spin and it’s critical that the DNI is making an impartial and independent assessment of their obligations not simply following what the White House says.”
Ratcliffe as a lawmaker has been critical of the FBI’s use of wiretaps approved under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, in particular to those used to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The sentiment is a common among House Republicans, who passed a bill in March to overhaul legislation controlling FISA powers. Whether that effort will pick up steam in the Senate remains to be seen.