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Intel chief nominee says he won't be swayed by politics

In this Wednesday, July 24, 2019 file photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, questions former special counsel Robert Mueller as he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
In this Wednesday, July 24, 2019 file photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, questions former special counsel Robert Mueller as he testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on his report on Russian election interference, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Published: May. 5, 2020 at 10:43 AM CDT
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Rep. John Ratcliffe, President Donald Trump's nominee to be director of national intelligence, pledged at his confirmation hearing Tuesday to deliver intelligence free of bias or political influence, even as skeptical Democrats repeatedly pressed the Texas Republican on whether he could stand up to the president and defend the agencies he would oversee.

The comments from Ratcliffe were aimed at quelling concerns that the ardent Trump loyalist would be swayed by political pressure from a president who has been openly dismissive of the government's spy agencies and once derided them as being “run amok."

The confirmation hearing, the first in-person one held under drastic new distancing rules to protect Capitol Hill from the coronavirus, comes as Trump faces persistent criticism for politicizing intelligence issues. It's also been a tumultuous time: At least a half dozen intelligence leaders have been replaced over the last year and agencies already confronting the threat of Russian interference in November's election are now investigating the politically charged question of whether the coronavirus pandemic originated in a Chinese market or a laboratory.

Ratcliffe's path to the job has been similarly topsy-turvy, with the original nomination withdrawn after bipartisan criticism that one of the president’s most ardent defenders during the Russia investigations and Trump’s impeachment was unqualified to oversee 17 U.S. spy agencies. Trump unexpectedly renominated him in February. His chances of securing the job appear better, but confirmation is not guaranteed.

Democrats laid bare their skepticism in occasionally contentious questioning, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California pressing him over past comments about whistleblowers and Sen. Ron Wyden asking him about his allegiance to a “snake-oil salesman" president.

“I have to say that while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt at this hearing, I don’t see what has changed since last summer when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination," said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the panel's top Democrat.

Ratcliffe took pains to break with the president, saying he did not know what Trump meant last summer when he said intelligence agencies had “run amok." He refused to endorse Trump's assertion of a “deep state" inside the intelligence community and insisted that he would not shade intelligence findings to meet the desires of anyone, including the president.

“Let me be very clear: Regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I will provide, if confirmed, will not be impacted or altered as a result of outside influence," he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

He answered “of course" when asked by Republican Sen. Susan Collins if he would communicate to Trump the intelligence community's findings even if he knew Trump disagreed with them and that doing so could cost him his job.

He said he believed that Russia had interfered in the 2016 presidential election without having changed votes. And when it comes to investigating the coronavirus origins, Ratcliffe also pledged that he would be “laser-focused" in that task - a key concern to Trump and other administration officials who have raised the idea that it could have emerged from a lab in China. Intelligence agencies say they're investigating.

Tuesday's hearing tested the Senate’s ability to conduct business safely with coronavirus cases still on the rise in the Washington area. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called his chamber back to work Monday, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., kept the House away, saying she had been advised by the Capitol physician that it was not yet safe to convene.

The session was sparsely attended, with members encouraged to watch as much as possible from their offices. No more than two dozen people were there at any point, with the public barred from the Capitol complex.

Questioning was broken into groups so multiple senators wouldn’t be in attendance at the same time, and seats were spaced at least six feet apart. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., joked that he could barely see Ratcliffe across the room.

Warner referenced the departure of at least six intelligence officials who have been fired, ousted or moved aside since Dan Coats left the DNI post last summer. That includes the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who first revealed a whistleblower complaint last fall that led to Trump’s impeachment.

“These firings and forced departures from the leadership of the intelligence community have left the ODNI without a single Senate-confirmed leader,” Warner said.

Since then, Trump installed loyalist Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as acting director and continued his shakeup of the intelligence community.

Lawmakers are concerned about the turnover and have said they are eager for a permanent, Senate-confirmed replacement for Coats, who had won bipartisan acclaim. Some senators who previously seemed cool to Ratcliffe’s nomination appeared to soften.

Collins, a critical GOP swing vote on the panel, pointedly said last summer that she had never heard of Ratcliffe before he was nominated. But last week she said she had spoken with him and concluded that he does have the experience “to meet the statutory standard” for the position. Her supportive statement indicates that Ratcliffe could be easily approved by the panel and then confirmed on the floor.

Ratcliffe, who sits on the House intelligence, judiciary and ethics committees, has been a fierce defender of the president. He forcefully questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller last summer when he testified about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

He was also a member of Trump’s impeachment advisory team last fall and aggressively questioned witnesses during House impeachment hearings.

After the Democratic-controlled House voted to impeach Trump, Ratcliffe said, “This is the thinnest, fastest and weakest impeachment our country has ever seen.”

Ratcliffe is a former federal prosecutor who has represented Texas' Fourth Congressional District which includes Grayson, Fannin, and Lamar counties in the U.S. House since 2015.

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Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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