U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for director of national intelligence (DNI) at his Senate confirmation hearing said he believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and was prepared to meddle again.
Representative John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, faced a grilling from Senate Intelligence Committee members on May 5 over whether the staunch Trump supporter would provide objective information heading 17 U.S. spy agencies.
Ratcliffe, who sits on the House intelligence, judiciary and ethics committees, has questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller’s findings last summer about the Russia investigation and was also a member of Trump’s impeachment advisory team last fall.
That has raised questions about whether Ratcliffe, if confirmed as the country's top spy, would alter intelligence to please a president who often disputes the findings of the intelligence community and Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.
"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.
Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee, said he was convinced Ratcliffe would serve "in an independent capacity." He urged the Senate to quickly approve his nomination.
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, speaking on the Senate floor as the hearing was under way, called Ratcliffe a "deeply partisan cheerleader for the president, a yes man in every sense of the phrase.”
Concerns that intelligence could be politicized come as the intelligence community investigates election meddling and the cause of the coronavirus pandemic, which Trump has blamed on China and suggested came from a virus laboratory.
Ratcliffe said that as DNI he would be "laser focused" on how the coronavirus pandemic began in China.
Citing China’s "Belt and Road" initiative, infrastructure, and military buildups, and Beijing's drive to expand its influence, Ratcliffe told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he viewed China as "the greatest threat actor right now."
"Look, with respect to COVID-19 and the role China plays; the race to 5G; cybersecurity issues: all roads lead to China," he told lawmakers.
Ratcliffe appeared before the Senate panel after Democrats, and some Republicans, questioned his qualifications and political positions.
Trump had nominated the Texas lawmaker to the top intelligence post in July, a month before Dan Coats left amid differences with the president.
But Ratcliffe then withdrew his nomination last year after Democrats and some Republicans voiced concerns about the pick.
"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 Senator Mark Warner, the panel’s top Democrat.
The DNI post has been vacant for nearly nine months, during which time about a half dozen top intelligence officials viewed as not loyal to the White House either left or were fired. Among those sacked was the intelligence community inspector-general who revealed a whistle-blower complaint that led to Trump's impeachment.
Joseph Maguire, a top counterterrorism official, served briefly as acting DNI, but he was fired in February after one of his aides told Congress that Russia was meddling in the 2020 election and preferred Trump.
Trump then named Richard Grenell, his ambassador to Germany and an administration loyalist, as acting DNI.
Republicans hold a 53-47 majority in the Senate and need 51 votes to confirm Ratcliffe.