Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief

Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE’s pick to be his next spy chief is facing a fierce political battle, injecting uncertainty into his confirmation chances.  

Democrats are signaling they will oppose Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeTrump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting Lawmakers to watch during Wednesday's impeachment hearing House Republicans on Judiciary strategize ahead of Wednesday's impeachment hearing MORE (R-Texas) to be the director of national intelligence, marking a change from previous nominees who have been confirmed with easy bipartisan majorities.  

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Republicans hold a 53-47 edge in the Senate, so it would take four GOP defections with unified Democratic opposition to deny Ratcliffe’s confirmation. 

That seems like a high bar for his opponents to reach, though it is notable that a number of key Republicans are not offering immediate support for Trump’s nominee. 

Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Democratic congressman calls for study of effects of sex-trafficking law McConnell says he's 'honored' to be WholeFoods Magazine's 2019 'Person of the Year' MORE (R-Ky.) opposed current Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats’s nomination in 2017. He hasn’t yet commented on Ratcliffe’s nomination and is one potential GOP “no” vote.  

Several members of the Senate Intelligence Committee have declined to weigh in on Ratcliffe. Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrSenate passes bipartisan bill to permanently fund historically black colleges NC rep explores Tillis primary challenge Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators MORE (R-N.C.) said he plans to quickly move the nomination once it’s official but hasn’t offered an explicit endorsement of Ratcliffe.  

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRubio places hold on number-two Interior nominee over offshore drilling Rubio on Chris Pratt water bottle story: 'I too was caught with a single use plastic water bottle' House votes to sanction Chinese officials over treatment of Uighurs MORE (R-Fla.), a committee member, praised Ratcliffe as “intelligent” and having a “great background” but signaled he’d wait to weigh in on his nomination until after the confirmation process.  

“It’s one of the most important jobs in the federal government, so I certainly think he’s talented enough, but for someone who is coming before a committee that I sit on, I want to go through that process before I opine,” Rubio said.  

Republicans have an 8-7 majority on the Intelligence panel, meaning a single defection could cost Ratcliffe the committee vote. That would not prevent his eventual confirmation.

Ratcliffe, a three-term congressman and former federal prosecutor, has faced a wave of criticism for his dearth of intelligence credentials, and his opponents argue he lacks the experience to fulfill the role effectively. Ratcliffe sits on the House Intelligence, Judiciary and Homeland Security committees, but has limited national security experience when compared to past nominees.  

Critics have also raised concerns that Ratcliffe, a staunch Trump ally, is too political for the role and will not be an unbiased steward of the nation’s intelligence, an issue guaranteed to come up during his confirmation hearing. In public comments, Ratcliffe has aligned himself closely with Trump in their criticism of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump MORE’s now-shuttered Russia investigation.  

Ratcliffe attracted more attention last week during his stern questioning of Mueller on Capitol Hill, during which he grilled the former special counsel on his report and suggested Mueller violated Justice Department rules in explicitly declining to exonerate Trump on obstruction allegations.  

Trump touted Ratcliffe as “brilliant” and “wonderful” on Tuesday and expressed hope he would “rein ... in” the intelligence agencies.  

“I think we need somebody like that there,” Trump said. “We need somebody strong that can really rein it in because, as I think you’ve all learned, the intelligence agencies have run amok.” 

But Ratcliffe is largely an unknown quantity for the Senate Republicans he’ll need to win over in order to be confirmed.  

Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiSenate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records Republicans raise concerns over Trump pardoning service members MORE (R-Alaska), who has voted against other high-profile nominees, told reporters she didn’t know anything about Ratcliffe, while Sen. Mike RoundsMarion (Mike) Michael RoundsSenate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days Senate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown Hillicon Valley: Facebook launches 'News Tab' | Senate passes bill to take on 'deepfakes' | Schumer outlines vision for electric cars MORE (R-S.D.) acknowledged that for Senate Republicans Trump’s pick was “not someone we had heard of before.”  

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsGiffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick Senate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days Lawmakers call for investigation into program meant to help student loan borrowers with disabilities MORE (R-Maine), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said that she had a “special interest” in who succeeds Coats as director of national intelligence because she helped write the law that created the position.  

“So I feel very strongly about this position and the importance of having someone with the integrity and skill and ability to bring all of the members of the intelligence together,” she said.  

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellDemocratic challenger to Joni Ernst releases ad depicting her as firing gun at him Senate confirms eight Trump court picks in three days The case for censuring, and not impeaching, Donald Trump MORE (R-Ky.) sidestepped directly offering support for Ratcliffe on Tuesday, saying he didn’t know the congressman. 

“Generally speaking, I would lean toward the president’s nominees,” he said. “[But] I would rather not address that until I’ve actually had the chance to meet him and discuss his background and qualifications.”  

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynGiffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick Push to investigate Bidens sets up potential for Senate turf war Pressure grows on House GOP leaders to hold line ahead of impeachment trial MORE (R-Texas), a member of the Intelligence Committee and adviser to McConnell, argued that the near-instantaneous opposition to Ratcliffe among Democrats was based largely on broader opposition to Trump.  

“I think it’s unfair to the nominee, but it’s not really about him, it’s about the president, as most of these votes are,” he said.  

Asked if he was worried Ratcliffe’s nomination would turn into a fight, he knocked Democrats, saying it “sounds like they’ve already drawn that line.”  

If confirmed, Ratcliffe, who has not officially been nominated, would be the sixth Senate-approved director of national intelligence since the position was created as part of an intelligence reform law in 2004. 

Coats, who is stepping down on Aug. 15 and was previously a Republican senator from Indiana, was approved by the Intelligence Committee in a 13-2 vote and by the full Senate 85-12. His predecessors, James ClapperJames Robert ClapperTrump predicts 'historic' conclusions from DOJ's watchdog report on 'spying' The curious timeline for taking down Trump Fairness, tradition, and the Constitution demand the 'whistleblower' step forward MORE and Dennis Blair, were confirmed by the Senate unanimously. John Negroponte, the first director of national intelligence, was confirmed 98-2. 

Ratcliffe’s vote is likely to be much closer, and more in line with other more recent nominees. 

Trump’s picks for secretary of State, Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonReport: Trump UK ambassador fired deputy for mentioning Obama in speech Overnight Defense: Ex-Navy secretary slams Trump in new op-ed | Impeachment tests Pompeo's ties with Trump | Mexican president rules out US 'intervention' against cartels Pompeo-Trump relationship tested by impeachment inquiry MORE and Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoReport: Pompeo had secret meeting with GOP donors in London The shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley The Hill's Morning Report - Dem dilemma on articles of impeachment MORE, both faced historically high levels of opposition to their nominations, while Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelEnhanced interrogation — better known as torture — took America to the dark side Trump administration, military officials at odds over CIA's Afghanistan role: report Trump meets with national security team on Afghanistan peace plan MORE, a career intelligence official, was narrowly confirmed as CIA director.  

“It is going to be different. I tell you, you’re already hearing from a lot of professionals, intelligence professionals, that this nominee doesn’t have the background, the experience or the skill,” said Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSupreme Court poised to hear first major gun case in a decade Protecting the future of student data privacy: The time to act is now Overnight Health Care: Crunch time for Congress on surprise medical bills | CDC confirms 47 vaping-related deaths | Massachusetts passes flavored tobacco, vaping products ban MORE (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

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Durbin, who voted to confirm Coats, knocked Ratcliffe on Tuesday, saying that “a couple of appearances on Fox TV doesn’t qualify a man to head up the intelligence agencies of the United States.”  

Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law | Michigan governor seeks to pause Medicaid work requirements | New front in fight over Medicaid block grants House, Senate Democrats call on Supreme Court to block Louisiana abortion law Why a second Trump term and a Democratic Congress could be a nightmare scenario for the GOP MORE (D-N.Y.), who voted for Coats, called Ratcliffe a “partisan shill,” while Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinGiffords, Demand Justice to pressure GOP senators to reject Trump judicial pick Senate confirms Trump pick labeled 'not qualified' by American Bar Association Feinstein endorses Christy Smith for Katie Hill's former House seat MORE (D-Calif.), a former chairwoman and current member of the Intelligence Committee, said Ratcliffe “appears to lack the experience needed for the job.”  

“Congressman Ratcliffe has served for four years in the House and was mayor of a small town in Texas. This isn’t a learn-as-you-go position and shouldn’t be given out to political supporters,” she added.  

Even Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinNo one wins with pro-abortion litmus test Senate confirms Brouillette to replace Perry as Energy secretary Political purity tests are for losers MORE (D-W.Va.), who supported other controversial Trump nominees, signaled that he has concerns about Ratcliffe based on what he’s read so far.  

“I don’t know the gentleman. I really don’t. ... [But] my information tells me he would be the wrong person for that job,” Manchin said, “being that partisan, being that contentious.”