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Ratcliffe vows to deliver unvarnished intelligence

Ratcliffe vows to deliver unvarnished intelligence
© AP/Pool

Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeTrump alumni launch America First Policy Institute Sunday shows preview: Democrats eye two-part infrastructure push; Michigan coronavirus cases surge Former Trump officials eye bids for political office MORE (R-Texas) promised during a confirmation hearing Tuesday to deliver an objective analysis of U.S. intelligence if he is confirmed by the Senate to serve as President TrumpDonald TrumpDC goes to the dogs — Major and Champ, that is Biden on refugee cap: 'We couldn't do two things at once' Taylor Greene defends 'America First' effort, pushes back on critics MORE’s director of national intelligence.

Despite a few tense moments, Ratcliffe largely delivered a polished performance, seeming neither to alienate Democrats nor infuriate the White House on a range of divisive topics, including Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

“I made it clear that if I am in this position, my loyalty is always going to be to the Constitution and the rule of law,” Ratcliffe told lawmakers, recalling a conversation he had with the president. “I won’t let party allegiance play a factor in the work that I do. ... The mission is too important.”

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If confirmed, Ratcliffe would fill a role at an agency that has been without a permanent leader for months. He was nominated by Trump in February, but the coronavirus pandemic had delayed a Senate panel from holding his confirmation hearing.

Ratcliffe was originally tapped to serve as director of national intelligence (DNI) in July, but he withdrew his name from consideration within a week after a barrage of negative headlines about padding his résumé and as GOP senators signaled reservations.

But opinions have changed over the past nine months, and so have the circumstances.

The hearing itself reflected what life is now like on Capitol Hill. Small groups of senators filtered into the room to ask Ratcliffe questions in 30-minute intervals, with some wearing masks or hanging them underneath their chins.

During his testimony, the Texas lawmaker sought to shake off criticisms that he is a Trump loyalist and instead fashioned himself as a man devoted to public service. He largely highlighted his time as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, which he said gave him experience both in national security and in working in a nonpartisan role.

Still, tensions flared up during questioning from senators.

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“You have certainly been briefed with respect to coming to this hearing, but on issue after issue, I have asked pretty straightforward questions and what I have gotten is a kind of, ‘Let us circle the question and not answer it,’” Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGOP senator: Raising corporate taxes is a 'non-starter' Democrats get good news from IRS IRS chief warns of unpaid taxes hitting trillion MORE (D-Ore.) told Ratcliffe at one point.

Wyden had pressed Ratcliffe on whether he would commit to giving Congress the intelligence related to the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and loopholes in the law regarding protections for whistleblowers, in a nod to the whistleblower complaint that sparked Trump’s impeachment.

“I am certainly not trying to be evasive, but the position I am getting considered for is the president’s principal intelligence adviser, not his legal adviser. And there is legal counsel I would go to if confirmed as DNI,” Ratcliffe responded to Wyden’s criticism.

Ratcliffe also sidestepped a question on whether he would publicly disagree if the president again repeats his claim that the intelligence community has run amuck.

“Nothing the president says will impact the delivery of the intelligence —” answered Ratcliffe, before Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetDemocrats get good news from IRS Senators press for answers in Space Command move decision Biden announces first slate of diverse judicial nominees MORE (D-Colo.) interjected that his answer did not respond directly to the question.

Democrats have criticized Ratcliffe for his questioning of the origins of the Russia probe and perceived political bias among FBI officials. They have also scrutinized his fierce questioning of former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE while sitting on the House Judiciary Committee and his forceful defense of Trump during the House impeachment hearings last year.

Ratcliffe sought to publicly address some of those concerns Tuesday but said he didn’t want to relitigate the past.

He denied that he believed there is a “deep state” within the intelligence community, as Trump has claimed, and he said whistleblowers are entitled to anonymity under the law. Ratcliffe also vowed not to allow outside influence on intelligence and pledged to communicate the intelligence community’s analyses to the president even if it meant his job was in jeopardy.

“I would ensure all intelligence is collected, analyzed and reported without bias, prejudice or political influence,” said Ratcliffe, adding that he would do so “regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect.”

He also said he believes that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections and the 2018 midterms and warned that Moscow will keep working to sow discord. But he was less definitive when asked about the conclusion that the Kremlin sought to hurt 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonPelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' Cuba readies for life without Castro Chelsea Clinton: Pics of Trump getting vaccinated would help him 'claim credit' MORE and thereby help then-candidate Trump during the race.

The intelligence community assessment and the bipartisan conclusion of the Senate Intelligence Committee found that Russia had a preference for one candidate over another, but Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee have disputed that point, taking issue with the tradecraft used to reach the assessment.

Ratcliffe, who joined the House Intelligence Committee after that GOP position was made, said that while he had “no reason to dispute” the Senate panel’s findings, he has not seen the underlying intelligence to determine “why there is a difference of opinion between the two committees.”

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“I respect both committees,” he added.

Many of the questions focused on whether Ratcliffe will be an independent voice to a president who demands loyalty above all else.

When Sen. Angus KingAngus KingNew US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations Schumer lays groundwork for future filibuster reform Bipartisan lawmakers signal support for Biden cybersecurity picks MORE (I-Maine) asked Ratcliffe for examples of where he has publicly differed with the president, Ratcliffe pointed to Trump’s decision in October to withdraw troops from Syria.

Asked for other instances, Ratcliffe said, “I’m sure there are; I don’t recall any as I’m sitting here.”

Ratcliffe’s allies have argued that he is fair and always willing to hear people out.

On Tuesday, the nominee also sought to make his testimony personal by describing how he was working in a skyscraper in Dallas during the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York City. That moment, he said, motivated him to leave his job as a partner in a law firm to take up public service. He said the values of giving back were strongly instilled by his parents, who were both schoolteachers.

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Ratcliffe testified in public for three hours and then met with senators for a closed-door portion of his confirmation hearing where sensitive topics can be discussed.

If the panel votes along party lines, Ratcliffe’s confirmation will be advanced to the full Senate on an 8-7 vote. If confirmed, he will replace acting DNI Richard Grenell, who has alarmed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle with his reorganization of the agency.

Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsModerates' 0B infrastructure bill is a tough sell with Democrats OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate confirms Mallory to lead White House environment council | US emissions dropped 1.7 percent in 2019 | Interior further delays Trump rule that would make drillers pay less to feds Anti-Asian hate crimes bill overcomes first Senate hurdle MORE (R-Maine), who faces a tough reelection race this year, has signaled that she is open to Ratcliffe’s nomination, though she is still considered a swing vote.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrA proposal to tackle congressional inside trading: Invest in the US Former Gov. Pat McCrory enters GOP Senate race in North Carolina Lara Trump leads GOP field in North Carolina Senate race, poll shows MORE (R-N.C.), who has vowed to move swiftly to confirm Ratcliffe, told reporters after the hearing that he hopes to vote on his nomination as early as next week and then work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP acknowledges struggle to bring down Biden Pew poll: 50 percent approve of Democrats in Congress Pelosi on power in DC: 'You have to seize it' MORE (R-Ky.) to schedule his confirmation vote on the Senate floor.

Burr also praised Ratcliffe.

“There were no questions that he sidestepped today. He answered everything, and I think he did a very successful job. He’s more than capable at doing this job,” Burr said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerNew US sanctions further chill Biden-Putin relations Democrats brace for new 'defund the police' attacks Intelligence leaders push for mandatory breach notification law MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, responded less enthusiastically while leaving the public portion of the confirmation hearing.

“He gave carefully crafted answers, not answers that at least left me with the notion that he’s going to protect the community that’s currently under assault,” Warner said.