Members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence are convening in shifts on Tuesday morning to hear from President Trump’s nominee to serve as director of national intelligence (DNI), Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe of Texas.
The high-stakes confirmation hearing, which is open but limited in size to allow for social distancing measures during the coronavirus pandemic, takes place as the work of the U.S. intelligence community has been thrust repeatedly into headlines by persistent and often politically-charged questions about the outbreak’s origins.
Ratcliffe withdrew his nomination after being selected for the role by Mr. Trump for the first time last August, in part because of media scrutiny of his qualifications — some of which appeared to be overstated. He is expected to field questions, especially from skeptical Democrats, about why he is better prepared for the role now than he was eight months ago.
“I have to say that, while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt during 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 Mark Warner of Virginia said in his opening statement. “This includes some particularly damaging remarks about whistleblowers, which has long been a bipartisan cause on this committee. I’ll speak plainly: I still have some of the same doubts now as I had back in August.”
But Republicans who appeared lukewarm about, if not averse to, Ratcliffe’s nomination last summer seem to have since warmed to the idea. Committee Chairman Richard Burr has said he believes there is “no substitute” for having a Senate-confirmed DNI in the role. The agency currently has no Senate-confirmed officials in its top ranks — it normally has at least half a dozen.
In his opening remarks, Burr noted Tuesday’s hearing would be more sparsely attended given social distancing measures but that the smaller crowd was not reflective of the hearing’s level of importance. The North Carolina senator said his newly sprouted beard was a tribute to late Senator Tom Coburn, who often went without shaving in times of crisis.
Burr welcomed Ratcliffe and said he expected the congressman to lead the intelligence community “with integrity.”
“I know he’s ready to get to work leading the intelligence community, which has continued to do its vital work under increasingly difficult conditions,” Burr said.
In his opening statement, Ratcliffe promised to oversee the intelligence community without bias and “speak truth to power.”
“If confirmed, I hope to be a stabilizing force,” Ratcliffe said. He also praised members of the intelligence community, and promised to represent them fairly.
Ratcliffe was pressed on his political independence by Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Susan Collins, and reiterated his support for whistleblower protections and his commitment to presenting unbiased information to the president. He was asked by Collins if he would include political consideration when issuing the intelligence briefing to the president.
“I will present the unvarnished truth that won’t be shaded for anyone,” Ratcliffe replied.
Acting DNI Richard Grenell, whose relationship with congressional overseers and members of the press quickly turned confrontational since he assumed the role in February, has drawn criticism from former intelligence officers who have said the head of the U.S. intelligence community should have neither time for nor interest in combative engagements on Twitter. Burr and Warner also sent a joint letter to Grenell insisting that personnel changes, a number of which he personally announced, be put on hold until a permanent director is confirmed.
Perhaps most crucially for Ratcliffe, Collins said in a statement before the hearing that, after speaking with him late last week, she has concluded Ratcliffe “does have the experience to meet the statutory standard to fill the position.” As a co-author of the 2004 legislation that gave rise to the DNI role, Collins was viewed as having a vested interest in protecting the office’s integrity, and therefore as a potential swing vote.
“His knowledge of cybersecurity is particularly important given the challenges our country faces,” Collins said. She also indicated that she discussed the importance of “objective analysis” with Ratcliffe.
A member of two high-profile committees — the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, which he joined in 2019 — Ratcliffe caught the president’s eye with his vocal defense of him at hearings related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and during the subsequent impeachment inquiry.
But Ratcliffe’s fellow Intelligence Committee members and some intelligence community officials have questioned whether he has spent enough time steeped in the substance of intelligence work to navigate the multi-billion-dollar, multi-disciplinary, 17-agency community — and whether his loyalty to Mr. Trump could become a liability in the role of DNI, which has been traditionally kept separate from politics.
He is likely to be pressed on that very question on Tuesday, when Democratic senators will seek to exact promises that Ratcliffe will protect the intelligence community’s apolitical mission from the political preferences — and pressures — of the White House.
That discussion is expected to focus in part on election security — a topic that is thought to have sparked the ire of the president and led to the ouster of former acting DNI Joseph Maguire. The intelligence community has said repeatedly that the Russian government, as it did in 2016, would seek to interfere in the 2020 presidential election, but the question of whether Moscow is again exhibiting a preference for Mr. Trump has sparked protestations from the president.
Ratcliffe may also be asked to address longstanding intelligence challenges related to “hard targets” like North Korea, Russia and Iran. Intelligence leaders who offered public assessments on those and other issues last year were later reprimanded as being “naive” by the president, whose policies diverged in some ways from what the assessments indicated.
Mr. Trump’s criticism of the intelligence community’s work and leadership has resurfaced with some frequency. In an interview on Sunday, the president appeared again to question the competence of the intelligence community’s previous leadership — presumably, that of Mr. Maguire, whom Trump himself selected after Ratcliffe first withdrew — while discussing the briefings he had been given in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak.
“[T]he intelligence agencies, which have now — now, because before they weren’t … are now very competently run with some great people,” Mr. Trump said, “and some great people coming.”