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.
Ratcliffe insisted during his confirmation hearing that he would be an independent leader, but faced skepticism. A member of the House intelligence and judiciary committees, he has been an ardent defender of the president through House impeachment and investigations into Russian interference.
Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and a member of the Senate intelligence panel, said he has concerns that Ratciffe has limited experience in the intelligence community yet extensive experience in politics. “A dangerous combination,” he said.
“Now more than ever it is vital that the DNI respect the critical firewall that must exist between intelligence and political calculations — especially if the truth isn’t what the boss wants to hear,” King said.
Before being elected to Congress in 2014, Ratcliffe was mayor of Heath, Texas, and a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas. When he was first nominated, senators questioned whether he had enough intelligence experience and whether he was picked because of his willingness to defend Trump.
But given a second chance, Ratcliffe worked to separate himself from the president at his confirmation hearing, including by saying he believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, a conclusion Trump has resisted. He said he would communicate to Trump the intelligence community’s findings even if he knew Trump disagreed with them and might fire him.
Still, the position carries unique challenges, given the president’s seeming inclinations to politicize intelligence and bend intelligence agencies to his will. Trump has openly rejected intelligence community assessments at odds with his own viewpoint, including on Russian election interference.
Trump has also shown himself as eager to have intelligence agencies investigate matters that he hopes will support his political positions, with agencies seeking to determine whether the coronavirus was the result of an accident in a Chinese laboratory or if it began through contact with infected animals.
In addition, the DNI in recent weeks has been declassifying information from the Russia investigation that Trump allies hope will cast senior Obama administration officials — including former vice president and 2020 Trump opponent Joe Biden — in a negative light.
Last week, for instance, Senate Republicans released a declassified list of former Obama administration and intelligence officials who requested the identity of an American from intelligence reports. The American turned out to be former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn.
On Tuesday, Republicans released a January 2017 email that Susan Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, wrote to herself. The message memorialized a sensitive conversation about Flynn and his Russian contacts that she had participated in earlier that month with Obama and then-FBI Director James Comey. Grenell declassified the full memo after Republicans requested it.
There also have been pushes from some Democrats, and even Flynn’s own lawyer, to release transcripts of phone calls during the presidential transition period between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those communications, though the Justice Department has since moved to dismiss the case.
“No lawyer for Flynn has ever seen it or heard the recording," Flynn's lawyer, Sidney Powell, said in an email to The Associated Press. “I would want both.”
Lisa Ruth, a former CIA officer, said in a telephone interview Thursday that the administration's expectations have made it a challenging time for an intelligence community that is supposed to be apolitical.
“The administration has signaled that they see the intelligence community, as well as other agencies, as support for the administration,” Ruth said in a telephone interview. “It puts things in a very different paradigm than what the intelligence community was meant to be and was supposed to be.”
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.