WASHINGTON - One of U.S. President Donald Trump’s most vocal supporters is set to lead the country’s intelligence community, overcoming concerns about his experience and a bitter partisan divide to win Senate confirmation.
The Senate voted 49 to 44, along party lines, Thursday to confirm Texas Representative John Ratcliffe as the next director of national intelligence.
Ratcliffe, who is slated to be sworn-in this coming Tuesday, will become the U.S. intelligence community’s first permanent leader since former Director Dan Coats stepped down last August.
During his confirmation hearing earlier this month, Ratcliffe promised that he would deliver the president and top policymakers the “unvarnished truth” no matter what they wanted to hear.
“What anyone wants the intelligence to reflect won't impact the intelligence that I deliver,” Ratcliffe said at the time. “It won’t be shaded for anyone.”
Before Thursday’s vote, Republican lawmakers said they believed Ratcliffe was up to the challenge.
Ratcliffe “will lead the intelligence community in countering threats from great powers, rogue nations and terrorists, and ensuring that work is untainted by political bias," said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Ratcliffe will have tremendous power to do good and to be transparent," added Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.
But Senate Democrats criticized Ratcliffe, expressing reservations that the Texas lawmaker would be able to set aside his partisan rhetoric.
"It requires someone with unimpeachable integrity, deep experience, and the independence and the backbone to speak truth to power,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. "Unfortunately, Mr. Ratcliffe doesn't even come close to meeting that high bar."
One of the key concerns for Democrats is how Ratcliffe will handle threats to the November presidential election.
Key U.S. intelligence officials, including Coats, the former intelligence director, have warned repeatedly that Russia aims to interfere with the election, much like it did in 2016.
Trump has consistently pushed back against the intelligence community’s conclusion that not only did Russia interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but that it did so with the ultimate aim of helping him get elected.
A bipartisan report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee last month affirmed that initial finding, calling the conclusion “sound.”
During his confirmation hearing, Ratcliffe said he could not wholly endorse the intelligence community’s conclusion, pointing to a 2018 report by the House Intelligence Committee, which disputed the judgment that Russia sought to help Trump win.
“I have not seen the underlying intelligence to tell me why there is a difference of opinion between the two committees," Ratcliffe said.
Other Democrats have raised concerns about Ratcliffe’s willingness to protect intelligence community whistleblowers, with Senator Dianne Feinstein of California accusing Ratcliffe of "participation in President Trump's campaign to punish and discredit" the CIA whistleblower whose complaint set the impeachment proceedings against him in motion.
"My issue was not with the whistleblower,” Ratcliffe said. “My issue was with what I perceived as a lack of due process in the House [impeachment] process."
“I want to make it very clear, if confirmed as DNI, every whistleblower, past present and future, will enjoy every protection under the law," he said.
Such concerns were reflected in the close, party-line confirmation vote.
In contrast, Coats, a former U.S. senator and ambassador to Germany, was confirmed by an 87-to-12 vote. And former President Barack Obama’s last director of national intelligence, James Clapper, a former lieutenant general and intelligence community veteran, was confirmed unanimously in 2010.
The 54-year-old Ratcliffe’s journey to the top ranks of the U.S. intelligence community has been an unusual one.
He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2015, having previously served as a U.S. attorney and mayor of Heath, Texas. And at the time the president first proposed that Ratcliffe become the nation’s top intelligence official, Ratcliffe had been serving on the House Intelligence Committee for only six months.
Concerns about that lack of experience, and allegations that he overstated his counterterrorism achievements as a federal prosecutor, caused Ratcliffe to withdraw his name from consideration last August.
Trump nominated Ratcliffe again this past February, calling him “an outstanding man of great talent!”
I am pleased to announce the nomination of @RepRatcliffe (Congressman John Ratcliffe) to be Director of National Intelligence (DNI). Would have completed process earlier, but John wanted to wait until after IG Report was finished. John is an outstanding man of great talent!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 28, 2020
Since then, Republican lawmakers have downplayed any concerns, maintaining that Ratcliffe will bring needed changes to an intelligence apparatus they see as having been co-opted by partisan concerns and an unhealthy fixation on the president and his administration.
"The intelligence community is a creation of Congress. Congress is not a creation of the intelligence community,” Grassley said in remarks praising Ratcliffe’s nomination before Thursday’s vote. “The intelligence community answers to us."
Grassley also praised the current acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, saying Ratcliffe “has some big shoes to fill.”
The current U.S. ambassador to Germany, Grenell has stoked the ire of both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and of Democrats in the House, for pushing ahead with a series of reforms without consulting them, while failing to give proper notification.
JUST IN: Senate Intelligence Committee official tells @VOANews that @ODNIgov Acting Dir @RichardGrenell failed to comply w/request from Republican Chair @SenatorBurr & Democratic Vice Chair @MarkWarner "consult with the Committee before making any further organizational changes" https://t.co/xpQQyBhu2T— Jeff Seldin (@jseldin) May 8, 2020
Those changes, some made despite concerns by both current and former intelligence officials, include reforms to how the intelligence community will brief on election interference and move to streamline operations at the National Counterterrorism Center.
Grenell on Thursday congratulated Ratcliffe on Twitter, saying Ratcliffe “will be the best DNI ever!”
Ratcliffe’s nomination also polarized former intelligence officials, some of whom have taken their concerns public.
Clapper told VOA earlier this month that Ratcliffe’s relationship with the intelligence agencies going forward bears watching.
“We’ll have to see how he performs,” Clapper said. “If he behaves as strictly a Trump loyalist, there will be a lot of blowback from the ranks.”