Divided Senate confirms Ratcliffe as intelligence chief

In this May 5, 2020, photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee during his nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trumps pick to be the nations top intelligence official, Ratcliffe, is adamant that if confirmed he will not allow politics to color information he takes to the president.  (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
In this May 5, 2020, photo, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee during his nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. President Donald Trumps pick to be the nations top intelligence official, Ratcliffe, is adamant that if confirmed he will not allow politics to color information he takes to the president. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

WASHINGTON – A sharply divided Senate confirmed John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence on Thursday, with Democrats refusing to support the nomination over fears that he will politicize the intelligence community's work under President Donald Trump.

All Democrats opposed Ratcliffe, making him the first DNI to be installed on a partisan vote since the position was created in 2005. The tally was 49-44.

Ratcliffe will take over the agency at a tumultuous time. The nation faces threats from Iran and North Korea, Russian disinformation campaigns to interfere in the U.S. elections and tensions with China over rising competition and the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, Trump has viewed the intelligence agencies with distrust and ousted or fired multiple officials.

The Texas Republican seemed unlikely to get the position when Trump in February announced plans to nominate him, as he had already been selected for the job last year and then withdrew after Republicans questioned his experience. But senators warmed to him as they grew concerned about the upheaval in the intelligence community and wanted a permanent, confirmed director.

Ratcliffe will replace Richard Grenell, the current acting director who has overseen some of the personnel changes. Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, has a thin intelligence background and is seen as a loyalist to Trump.

As acting director, Grenell made personnel changes and ordered reviews of the national intelligence director's office that critics feared were an attempt to clean house. Some members of the Senate intelligence committee said an acting director shouldn’t be engaging in reforming the intelligence apparatus. But Grenell’s office disputed fears of a purge and said some of the reforms he was considering or implementing had been recommended by past directors.

The last Senate-confirmed intelligence director, former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, was popular with his former colleagues in Congress but left the post last summer after clashing with the president.

Democrats allowed a quick vote on Ratcliffe's nomination, dropping their usual procedural delays in a signal that despite their skepticism, they prefer him in the job over Grenell.