Senate braces for brawl over Trump's spy chief

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

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says his advice to impeachment defense team is 'just be honest' Trump expands tariffs on steel and aluminum imports CNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group 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 RatcliffeJordan says he thinks trial will be over by next week The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules White House appoints GOP House members to advise Trump's impeachment team 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 PaulLindsey Graham will oppose subpoena of Hunter Biden Marsha Blackburn shares what book she's reading during Trump Senate trial Sekulow indicates Trump should not attend impeachment trial 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 BurrMarsha Blackburn shares what book she's reading during Trump Senate trial GOP senator provides fidget spinners to Senate colleagues at lunch Juan Williams: Counting the votes to remove Trump 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 RubioCommerce Department withdraws Huawei rule after Pentagon pushback: reports  Veronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address Senators press DHS over visa approval for Pensacola naval base shooter 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 MuellerSchiff: Trump acquittal in Senate trial would not signal a 'failure' Jeffries blasts Trump for attack on Thunberg at impeachment hearing Live coverage: House Judiciary to vote on impeachment after surprise delay 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 MurkowskiSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment Nadler calls Trump a 'dictator' on Senate floor 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 RoundsDrug price outrage threatens to be liability for GOP Overnight Defense: Iran takes credit for rocket attack on US base | Trump briefed | Trump puts talk of Iraq withdrawal on hold | Progressives push to block funding for Iran war | Trump backs off threat to hit Iranian cultural sites McConnell to GOP on impeachment rules: I have the votes MORE (R-S.D.) acknowledged that for Senate Republicans Trump’s pick was “not someone we had heard of before.”  

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Schiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment 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 McConnellCNN's Axelrod says impeachment didn't come up until 80 minutes into focus group Democrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment Impeachment throws curveball in Iowa to sidelined senators 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 CornynNadler gets under GOP's skin Restlessness, light rule-breaking and milk spotted on Senate floor as impeachment trial rolls on Democrats worry a speedy impeachment trial will shut out public 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 TillersonOvernight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Kudlow says Trump 'looking at' reforming law on bribing foreign officials Trump called top military brass 'a bunch of dopes and babies' in 2017: book MORE and Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPompeo explodes at NPR reporter, asks if she could find Ukraine on a map Huawei endangers Western values The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats turn to obstruction charge MORE, both faced historically high levels of opposition to their nominations, while Gina HaspelGina Cheri HaspelSchiff schedules public hearing with US intel chief  Senate Democrat says he is concerned intelligence community is 'bending' Soleimani presentations House chairman: Pompeo won't testify at Iran hearing Tuesday 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 DurbinDemocrats feel political momentum swinging to them on impeachment GOP senator calls for public health emergency over new coronavirus Tensions between McConnell and Schumer run high as trial gains momentum 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 SchumerVeronica Escobar to give Spanish-language response to Trump State of the Union address The Hill's 12:30 Report: Democrats turn to obstruction charge Liberal super PAC to run digital ads slamming Trump over Medicare comments MORE (D-N.Y.), who voted for Coats, called Ratcliffe a “partisan shill,” while Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinCalifornia Democrat Christy Smith launches first TV ad in bid for Katie Hill's former House seat Biden wins endorsement of Sacramento mayor Roberts under pressure from both sides in witness fight 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) ManchinSchiff sparks blowback with head on a 'pike' line Schiff closes Democrats' impeachment arguments with emotional appeal to remove Trump Trump's trial a major test for McConnell, Schumer 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.”