Trump’s Intelligence-Chief Nominee Vows to ‘Speak Truth to Power’

Rep. John Ratcliff R-Texas, testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington May 5.

Rep. John Ratcliff R-Texas, testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington May 5. Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times via AP

GOP lawmakers are seeking to fasttrack Rep. John Ratcliffe’s nomination, but his careful answers did not appear to satisfy skeptics.

Rep. John Ratcliffe repeatedly sought to reassure the lawmakers weighing his confirmation as President Trump’s director of national intelligence that he would not mix politics with intelligence.

At his nomination hearing on Tuesday, the Texas Republican was pressed about his independence by almost every Democrat on the socially-distanced dais. In response, Ratcliffe offered deferential thanks for their questions and sought to give unequivocal answers.

“I won’t shade intelligence for anyone,” he said. "If confirmed as the DNI, 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.”

But Ratcliffe often declined to speak in specifics, demurring either on a basis of fact — ”I don't have enough information to answer your question” — or law, insisting narrowly that “whatever the law is I will do as DNI.” 

His answers did not appear to satisfy skeptics on the committee. The former Texas prosecutor is known as a staunch defender of Trump in the House and an architect of some of the House GOP’s most aggressive investigations into alleged wrongdoing inside the intelligence community, seen by critics as deeply partisan. Last year, he was withdrawn from consideration for the post when Trump first tapped him, after it appeared that he had embellished an already-thin national security resume. 

“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,” committee vice chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., said during his opening statement. 

What has changed appears to be Republican support. Although members of both parties appeared to oppose his nomination in 2019, GOP lawmakers now appear poised to fast-track his confirmation — if only to install a permanent ODNI rather than another in the series of acting directors who have served since Dan Coats left last summer. Trump loyalist Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, currently serves as acting director.

“I think he did a very successful job verifying that he's more than capable of this job and will serve in an independent capacity if confirmed,” committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told pool reporters after the hearing. “It’s my intent to run this nomination as quickly through the committee as — 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.”

Several Republicans explicitly defended Ratcliffe from criticism over his partisanship and relative inexperience for the post. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a former Senate whip and a member of the intelligence panel, told his colleagues that Ratcliffe understands "the difference between being a legislator and being the director of national intelligence,” suggesting obliquely that concerns about Ratcliffe’s partisanship in the House have little bearing on his fitness for a role as the nation’s top spy. 

"It's my view you have pretty extensive experience," Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said from the dais.

Throughout the hearing, Ratcliffe deftly avoided being placed in opposition to some of Trump’s most closely held beliefs. In particular, the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election on behalf of a favored candidate — Trump — is known to incense the president. Ratcliffe affirmed that he believed the Russians had carried out an active measures campaign, but declined to support the conclusion that Moscow was seeking to help Trump get elected — because, he said, the House Intelligence Committee had found that Russia wanted to sow discord, not help Trump. 

Ratcliffe was also pressed repeatedly about his past attacks on the intelligence community whistleblower who filed the complaint last year that kicked off the House’s impeachment inquiry into Trump’s phone call with the president of Ukraine. During that process, Ratcliffe repeatedly sought to portray the whistleblower as politically motivated by a desire to undermine the president, leveling accusations that he “didn’t tell the truth.” But on Tuesday, he insisted that his concerns were with the “House process,” not the whistleblower. 

"If confirmed, every whistleblower will enjoy every protection under the law,” Ratcliffe said Tuesday. “ I don't want to re-litigate old issues of what happened during the impeachment inquiry. My issue was not with the whistleblower. My issue was with a lack of due process in the House process."

Ratcliffe’s efforts to tread a fine line of assuaging lawmaker concerns without angering the president left some lawmakers frustrated.

"You want to have it both ways. You want to try to portray yourself as a defender of the Constitution and then you water it down with the specifics," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said. 

The hearing was the first confirmation hearing to be held amid the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers rotated in and out of the cavernous hearing room, encouraged by Burr to watch from their office until it was time for them to ask a question. Bottles of Purell dotted the dias and a bearded Burr spoke with a mask tucked under his chin. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., kept his mask over his mouth when he spoke. 

“This hearing will be a little bit different,” Burr said as he gaveled in. “It is perhaps the first hearing held during the extenuating circumstances of a pandemic.”