Senate Confirms Trump Loyalist Ratcliffe as Intelligence Chief

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(Bloomberg) -- The Senate confirmed Representative John Ratcliffe as the nation’s spy chief on Thursday, overcoming criticism that he’s too much a loyalist to President Donald Trump and has too little experience in intelligence issues.

Ratcliffe, who was confirmed on a 49-44 vote, takes over as director of national intelligence at a pivotal time, as Trump seeks to pin blame on China for the global coronavirus outbreak while Russia and other nations conduct foreign influence operations to interfere in the current presidential campaign.

Senate Confirms Trump Loyalist Ratcliffe as Intelligence Chief

Ratcliffe also will be under pressure by Trump to bolster the president’s claims of an “Obamagate” conspiracy, allegations without evidence that White House, law enforcement and intelligence officials under President Barack Obama sought to prevent Trump’s election and then undermine his presidency.

Ratcliffe pledged at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee “to deliver timely, accurate and objective intelligence, and to speak truth to power, be that with this Congress or within the administration.”

But Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a member of the Intelligence panel, said on the Senate floor Thursday that Ratcliffe demonstrated in the confirmation process “that he is so eager to serve power that he will twist the truth” and will “misrepresent and politicize intelligence without a moment’s hesitation.”

Ratcliffe’s predecessor, acting director Ric Grenell, laid the groundwork for U.S. intelligence to advance the Obamagate conspiracy theory by declassifying selective information including requests by Obama administration officials to identify people around Trump whose names were redacted from intelligence reports. Republican lawmakers indicated they will push for more intelligence documents to be declassified and made public by Ratcliffe.

Qualifications Questioned

Ratcliffe, who served as a Republican congressman from Texas since 2015, withdrew from consideration for the intelligence director’s position last year amid tepid Republican support and accusations that he’d exaggerated his qualifications.

But Trump re-nominated him, and he won support from Republicans who cited the need for the intelligence community to have a confirmed leader nine months after the departure of Dan Coats as director of national intelligence. Still, no Republican senators came to the Senate floor on Thursday to praise Ratcliffe’s qualifications for the post.

The head of U.S. intelligence oversees 17 agencies carrying out operations including collecting and analyzing the electronic communications of adversaries and supporting military deployments and clandestine human spy work.

A former mayor of Heath, Texas, Ratcliffe became a Trump favorite after he stood out in 2018 -- along with current White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and other conservative lawmakers -- on a House task force pursuing the theory that anti-Trump bias and support for Democrat Hillary Clinton tainted the early stages of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether anyone close to Trump conspired in the meddling.

After Robert Mueller took over the probe as special counsel, Ratcliffe remained a vocal critic. Trump announced his initial plan to nominate Ratcliffe days after he drew praise from conservatives by aggressively questioning Mueller during his congressional testimony.

Asked at the confirmation hearing on May 5 about the Senate Intelligence panel’s bipartisan conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump win, Ratcliffe sidestepped the question.

“I have no reason to dispute the committee’s findings,” he said while also citing the House Intelligence panel’s contrary finding that there was no tilt toward Trump.

Ratcliffe promised that, if confirmed, “the intelligence community will be laser-focused on getting all of the answers that we can” on how and why the coronavirus outbreak began and spread. Trump and his allies have ramped up their attacks against China over the virus, which has killed more than 93,000 Americans and ravaged the U.S. economy.

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