Trump’s pick for spy chief pledges to ‘speak truth to power’ if confirmed, despite years of evidence to the contrary

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U.S.Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) references a stack of deposition transcripts while asking questions during a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
  • Republican Rep. John Ratcliffe, President Donald Trump’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he will “speak truth to power” if confirmed.
  • This is Ratcliffe’s second attempt at securing the Senate’s approval for the DNI role. Trump initially nominated Ratcliffe last year, but the congressman withdrew after a string of controversies about his past record and public statements.
  • Ratcliffe was grilled on Tuesday on his views about the origins of the novel coronavirus, Russian interference in US elections, and Trump’s controversies with the intelligence community.
  • Officials from previous Democratic and Republican administrations have sounded the alarm about his nomination, saying Ratcliffe’s appointment could paralyse the intelligence community and present an existential threat to career officials.
  • Scroll down for highlights from Ratcliffe’s blockbuster testimony.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Republican Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe pledged on Tuesday to “speak truth to power” if he’s confirmed as the Director of National Intelligence, the US’s top spy chief who is responsible for overseeing 16 other intelligence agencies.

“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,” Ratcliffe said in opening remarks at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee. “Above all, my fidelity and loyalty will always be to the Constitution and rule of law, and my actions as DNI will reflect that commitment.”

This is Ratcliffe’s second attempt at securing the Senate’s approval to be DNI. President Donald Trump initially nominated him for the position last July after Ratcliffe catapulted into the spotlight by berating the former special counsel Robert Mueller during congressional hearings.

But the congressman withdrew from consideration after it surfaced that he inflated his resume and misled the public about his role in overseeing anti-terrorism efforts at the US attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Texas.

Ratcliffe adopted a markedly different demeanour during Tuesday’s hearing than he has over the last several years as one of Trump’s biggest attack dogs on Capitol Hill.

Though he’s gone to bat for the president repeatedly during his time in Congress, Ratcliffe tried on Tuesday to distance himself from Trump and strike a more balanced tone amid questions about his qualifications and experience.

Scroll down for highlights from Tuesday’s hearing:


Ratcliffe only recalled one instance in which he disagreed with Trump

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In addition to pummelling Mueller with allegations of bias and corruption last year, Ratcliffe also made headlines for his full throated defence of Trump during his bitter impeachment proceedings.

The Texas representative sought to separate himself from the president during Tuesday’s hearing but faced an uphill battle with Democrats on the committee.

At one point, Sen. Angus King, an Independent senator who caucuses with Democrats, asked Ratcliffe if he could recall a time that he publicly disagreed with Trump. Ratcliffe said he supported a resolution last year opposing Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria.

“Any other incidents?” King pressed.

“I’m sure there are,” Ratcliffe said. “I don’t recall any as I’m sitting here.”


Democrats zeroed in on Ratcliffe’s ‘inexperience, partisanship, and past statements’ embellishing his record

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“I have to say that, while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in this hearing, I don’t see what has changed since last summer, when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination over concerns about your inexperience, partisanship, and past statements that seemed to embellish your record,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the vice chairman of the panel. “This includes some particularly damaging remarks about whistleblowers, which has long been a bipartisan cause on this committee.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California also questioned Ratcliffe about his allegations against the intelligence community official who filed an anonymous whistleblower complaint against Trump last year that catalyzed his impeachment.

Ratcliffe accused the official of making “false statements” and said they “didn’t tell the truth.”

But he declined to explain his remarks on Tuesday, telling Feinstein he didn’t want to “re-litigate” Trump’s impeachment.

“I want to make it very clear, if confirmed as DNI, every whistleblower, past, present and future, will enjoy every protection under the law,” Ratcliffe said.


Ratcliffe said he’ll be ‘laser focused’ on tracing the origins of the novel coronavirus if confirmed as DNI

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“If confirmed the intelligence community will be laser focused on getting all of the answers that we can regarding how this happened, when this happened, and I commit to providing with as much transparency to you as the law will allow and with due regard for sources and methods,” Ratcliffe said on Tuesday.

He added that he believes China is the “greatest threat actor” against the US right now, citing the country’s role in the coronavirus outbreak and its aggression in the cyber arena.

“All roads lead to China,” Ratcliffe said.


Ratcliffe walked a tightrope on questions about if the coronavirus came from a lab in Wuhan, China

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Sen. Angus King asked Ratcliffe at one point whether he’s seen any intelligence product suggesting the virus originated in a Wuhan lab, as Trump and other administration officials have publicly suggested.

Ratcliffe replied that he hasn’t seen any evidence indicating that, but noted that he had not had a classified briefing on the matter in a while.

Shortly after, Republican Sen. Tom Cotton asked Ratcliffe if he’d seen any evidence confirming the virus originated in a wet market, as scientists, medical professionals, and infectious disease experts have said.

Ratcliffe said he hasn’t seen any intelligence proving that theory either.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence put out a statement last week saying the intelligence community agrees with the “wide scientific consensus” that the coronavirus was not “manmade or genetically modified.”

The statement continued to say the intelligence community will “rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.”

Multiple intelligence officials and those familiar with the matter told The New York Times, Politico, and other outlets they have found no hard evidence so far to back up the theory that the novel coronavirus was created in or escaped from a Wuhan lab.

Sources also told The Times that Trump administration officials are pressuring American spies to link the virus to the lab, and one former intelligence official described senior aides’ repeated emphasis of the lab theory as “conclusion shopping,” a disparaging term analysts use to describe politically motivated demands.

CNN also reported that intelligence shared among the Five Eyes nations indicates it is “highly unlikely” the outbreak resulted from a lab accident but rather originated in a Chinese market.


Ratcliffe refused to comment on Trump’s controversies with the intel community, despite his vocal defence of the president in Congress

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Ratcliffe refused to comment on the myriad controversies involving Trump and the intelligence community on Tuesday, despite his willingness to go to bat for the president while serving on the House intelligence and judiciary committees.

Here are some of the things Ratcliffe declined to weigh in on:

  • Trump’s refusal to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help him win.

    • The US intelligence community concluded with high confidence in 2017 that Moscow meddled in the election to propel Trump to the presidency. The Senate Intelligence Committee came to the same conclusion. The House Intelligence Committee, which Ratcliffe serves on, agreed Russia interfered but did not conclude it did so to help Trump.
  • Trump’s decision to oust former intelligence community inspector general Michael Atkinson.
  • Atkinson’s decision to notify Congress about a whistleblower’s complaint against Trump.

“That’s a legal question that I don’t know the answer to,” Ratcliffe said when asked about the complaint and whether Atkinson was right to notify Congress.

At one point, Ratcliffe was asked whether he believes a “deep state” exists within the intelligence community.

“I don’t know what that means,” he replied, despite the fact that he’s repeatedly suggested there is a “secret society” within the FBI.


Former CIA, NSA officials warn Ratcliffe’s appointment would paralyse the intelligence community

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Robert Deitz, a former top lawyer for the CIA and National Security Agency who served under Republican and Democratic administrations, told Business Insider that there is “great concern” about Ratcliffe’s nomination within the intelligence community. “His appointment suggests Trump is trying to politicize the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and mould it into a partisan operation, which it has never been,” Deitz said.

He added that although there were initial concerns within the rank and file about Coats, he “turned that around and engendered a great deal of loyalty within the department because he valued people’s work.”

“Ratcliffe is, as demonstrated during the Mueller hearings, a very aggressive partisan,” Deitz said. “If you’re going to support the president in everything he says, whimsical or not, intelligence professionals are going to have a very difficult time working under you.”

Glenn Carle, a former covert CIA operative and a vocal Trump critic, told Business Insider that Ratcliffe’s confirmation could also present career officials with an existential dilemma.

“This will put officers in the same position that many were in after Trump took office,” Carle said. “In Trump’s case, if you served the chief executive, you were undermining your oath because you can’t trust him to protect sources and methods or to serve the national interest. If you didn’t follow his orders, you were being insubordinate.”

“If Ratcliffe is confirmed, the people who work under him will be faced with this dilemma again: they’re screwed if they follow his directives, because he is a partisan, and they’re screwed if they don’t,” Carle said.


Former NSC official: Ratcliffe’s confirmation will ‘send a chill’ through nonpartisan, career officers

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The friction between Trump and Coats was something of an open secret by the time Coats’ resignation was announced last July. Throughout his tenure as DNI, Coats repeatedly warned about continued Russian attacks against the US electoral system and critical infrastructure. His statements often stood in sharp contrast to the president’s well documented reluctance to acknowledge the threat Moscow poses.

Conversely, Ratcliffe often fuels the president’s unfounded conspiracy theories. He told Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo that former FBI director James Comey “either is or should be” investigated for violating the Espionage Act, for memorializing his conversations with the president in the Oval Office, and for later instructing a friend to share that information with the press.

He later said during a Fox News interview that “there were crimes committed during the Obama administration” related to investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

During Mueller’s hearings, Ratcliffe came out guns blazing against the former FBI director, accusing him of breaking Justice Department protocol while investigating Trump for obstruction of justice.

And The Daily Beast reported just hours before Ratcliffe was scheduled to testify on Tuesday that the Texas congressman follows a slew of Qanon accounts on Twitter. Among those he follows are accounts that push the Pizzagate conspiracy theory and a 9/11 truther with just one follower besides Ratcliffe.

Edward Price, the former senior director of the National Security Council under Obama and a former CIA analyst, told Business Insider Ratcliffe’s appointment could lead to “reticence and even paralysis” on the part of the intel community when it comes to some of the most consequential national security questions.

If Ratcliffe is confirmed, he’ll have the authority to automatically declassify sensitive intelligence relating to any number of government inquiries, including the Russia probe. That notion could “send a chill throughout the personnel ranks and among all of those who might otherwise work for the US government against shared threats,” Price said.

“His presence at the helm of the community would be a constant reminder that analysts, operators, and anyone else who comes into contact with our nation’s most sensitive operations could one day find themselves on the wrong side of a politicized feud,” he added.