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)
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.
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.SHOW MORE