Senate braces for brawl over Trump’s spy chief

Greg Nash

President Trump’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 Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to be the director of national intelligence, marking a change from previous nominees who have been confirmed with easy bipartisan majorities.  

{mosads}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 Paul (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 Burr (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 Rubio (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 Mueller’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 Murkowski (R-Alaska), who has voted against other high-profile nominees, told reporters she didn’t know anything about Ratcliffe, while Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) acknowledged that for Senate Republicans Trump’s pick was “not someone we had heard of before.”  

Sen. Susan Collins (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 McConnell (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 Cornyn (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 Clapper 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 Tillerson and Mike Pompeo, both faced historically high levels of opposition to their nominations, while Gina Haspel, 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 Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. 

{mossecondads}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 Schumer (D-N.Y.), who voted for Coats, called Ratcliffe a “partisan shill,” while Sen. Dianne Feinstein (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 Manchin (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.”

Tags Chuck Schumer Dianne Feinstein Dick Durbin Donald Trump Gina Haspel James Clapper Joe Manchin John Cornyn John Ratcliffe Lisa Murkowski Marco Rubio Mike Pompeo Mike Rounds Mitch McConnell Rand Paul Rex Tillerson Richard Burr Robert Mueller Susan Collins

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