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Coronavirus: Senators question Trump’s intelligence nominee in confirmation hearing

Published: Updated:

The US senators pressed Donald Trump's nominee to lead US intelligence on Tuesday on whether he would act independently of the president on hot-button issues like the origins of the coronavirus in China, as lawmakers held the first socially-distanced hearing during the coronavirus pandemic.

Both Republicans and Democrats at the Senate Intelligence committee’s confirmation hearing wanted to know how Representative John Ratcliffe would manage pressure from Trump, a president who has often been at odds with the intelligence community.

The three-term House member, who fervently supported Trump during impeachment repeatedly pledged to act independently.

“The intelligence I deliver will not be subject to outside influence,” he said.

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Many questions for the Republican nominee to head 17 US intelligence agencies centered on coronavirus and China, which Trump has partly blamed for the devastating impact on the United States.

The cavernous hearing room was eerily empty, as the Senate observed strict protocols to protect against the spread of coronavirus. Ratcliffe said that, if confirmed, he would focus on the virus's impact, questions about its origins in China and US competition with Beijing.

“If confirmed, the intelligence community will be laser focused on getting all the answers that we can regarding how this happened,” Ratcliffe said.

Trump's administration and the government in Beijing have been engaged in a bitter war of words over how the coronavirus spread, as the illness has killed more than 60,000 Americans and cratered the country's economy, complicating Trump's run for re-election in November.

Donald Trump's nominee to lead US intelligence John Ratcliff talks with Senator John Cornyn, at the top of a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 5, 2020. (AP)
Donald Trump's nominee to lead US intelligence John Ratcliff talks with Senator John Cornyn, at the top of a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 5, 2020. (AP)

Ratcliffe said he views China as the greatest threat to the United States, on many fronts. “I won't say all roads lead to China, but a lot of them do,” he said.

Trump nominated Ratcliffe, a member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee since January 2019, to be director of national intelligence last summer. The nomination was dropped amid questions about his lack of experience and partisan reputation but the Republican president nominated him again this year.

Now, a few Republican committee members, including committee chair Richard Burr, promised they would back Ratcliffe, while stressing the need for the director to be politically independent.


Partisanship

Democrats appeared unconvinced. The committee's top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner, said he was concerned about partisanship from Ratcliffe, a strongly outspoken supporter of Trump during impeachment hearings last year, especially regarding intelligence oversight and whistleblowers.

“I still have some of the same doubts now as I had back in August,” Warner said.

There has been no Senate-confirmed Director of National Intelligence since August, when former Republican Senator Dan Coats retired. The current acting DNI, Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, is seen as a fierce Trump partisan.

Trump and aides have sharply criticized intelligence officials, accusing them of working for a “Deep State” seeking to undermine his presidency.

Ratcliffe repeatedly praised them.

“I don't think that the men and women of the intelligence community are running amok,” he said.

Burr, who privately criticized Ratcliffe when his name was first floated last year, promised the Republican-majority panel would quickly recommend Ratcliffe to the full Senate. Trump's fellow Republicans hold a narrow 53 to 47-vote in the chamber, and he needs 51 votes for confirmation, so approval is likely.

Trump infuriated Democrats and attracted criticism from some Republicans by firing Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who sent Congress a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump sought to persuade Ukraine's president to collect potentially damaging information on former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Trump political rival.

That report became central to Trump's impeachment.

Michael Atkinson leaves a secure area in the Capitol after a day of questions about the whistleblower complaint that exposed a July phone call the Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on October 4, 2019. (AP)
Michael Atkinson leaves a secure area in the Capitol after a day of questions about the whistleblower complaint that exposed a July phone call the Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on October 4, 2019. (AP)

Much about the hearing was unusual, or unprecedented. Ratcliffe's family did not attend.

Some staff and senators wore masks into the room, but removed them to speak. Ratcliffe did not wear a mask. Members of the press were limited to a small number, who provided pool reports.

Burr closely questioned Ratcliffe about his view of Russian interference in US elections. The nominee said he agreed that Russia sought to sow discord in the United States and interfere in the 2016 and 2018 campaigns.

Trump has rejected intelligence community conclusions that Moscow sought to boost his candidacy.

“I will deliver the unvarnished truth, it won't be shaded for anyone,” Ratcliffe said under questioning from Senator Susan Collins, one of the Senate's most moderate Republicans.