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Trump's Nominee For Intelligence Director Vows To Operate Independently

President Trump's nominee to be director of national intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.
Andrew Harnik
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
President Trump's nominee to be director of national intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday.

Updated at 3:11 p.m. ET

President Trump's nominee to serve as America's top spy vowed on Tuesday to operate independently in response to bipartisan questions as to whether he could keep politics out of intelligence work.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas., assured both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that if confirmed as director of national intelligence, he would not apply a partisan filter to reporting, shade conclusions to please Trump, or apply inappropriate tests to workers in the intelligence community.

"My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law and I have made that clear to everyone including the president," Ratcliffe said at his confirmation hearing.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., asked the nominee whether Trump had asked him for his personal loyalty or whether Ratcliffe has volunteered that he would act independently.

"I made that proactively clear," Ratcliffe said. He said Trump had not asked him to be personally loyal.

The DNI position and the intelligence community have been the target of sustained enmity from Trump's camp since before his inauguration, then especially through the Ukraine affair and the Russia investigation.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and other committee members asked Ratcliffe about past Trump comments that the intelligence community had "run amok" and needed to be "reined in."

Ratcliffe said he didn't think the spy agencies had "run amok" and that he appreciates the need to present what he called unvarnished findings and analysis to leaders in Washington, especially Trump.

"None of those things, regardless of what he says or how he says them or how [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi or [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell or anyone says about intelligence or the intelligence community — will not impact the intelligence that I will deliver," Ratcliffe said.

Trump hasn't only dueled with the intelligence community over Russia and the Ukraine affair.

Last year, for example, then-Director Dan Coats and other agency bosses told Congress they assessed that North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un would never surrender his nuclear program because of its importance to the survival of his regime.

Trump had made negotiations with Kim a plank of his foreign policy and that assessment showed the president either ignored or rejected the counsel of his own top intelligence advisers.

In another episode, the intelligence establishment said Iran had continued to abide by the terms of the nuclear deal negotiated under former President Barack Obama — although Trump had decided to scrap it.

The chairman

Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., prepares his notes at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
Gabriella Demczuk / Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., prepares his notes at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

Tuesday's hearing was the first since news accounts imperiled the standing of the panel's chairman, North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

Burr may not have spoken publicly about what he'd learned privately about the coronavirus earlier this year — and may have sold assets early to prevent financial losses he might have suffered when the stock market crashed this spring, according to NPR reports.

Burr is believed to be under investigation by the Justice Department and Senate ethics authorities about what he said and did earlier this year and whether he may have transgressed any laws or rules within the chamber.

Burr has denied any wrongdoing and invited an inquiry by the Senate Ethics Committee.

The reports, however, have created sometimes-awkward tensions within the GOP. Even a few of Burr's fellow Republicans have called on him to give "everybody an explanation" about his activities this year, but those issues went unmentioned at Tuesday's hearing.

The nominee

Ratcliffe already was nominated once, and then withdrew, from consideration to serve as director of national intelligence.

News accounts suggested the Texas congressman had overstated some of his bona fides on counterterrorism and he asked not to move ahead with the nomination process before his Senate confirmation hearing.

Since then, Trump and Ratcliffe evidently have assessed that the political climate is at least no worse than it was last summer, the first time they tried.

Republicans control a majority in the Senate, but a few key members often hold the key to moving ahead via its procedural processes.

It isn't clear whether Ratcliffe's confirmation is guaranteed, but he does appear to have sold at least one of those often-critical gatekeepers: Maine's Collins said she thought Ratcliffe has the experience sufficient to serve as the top spy.

Democrats on the panel seemed as though they may not go along. Vice Chairman Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., invoked the many firings by Trump of top ODNI leaders and what he called lingering concerns about Ratcliffe himself and the Ukraine affair.

"I have to say that, while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt in this hearing, I don't see what has changed since last summer. ... This includes some particularly damaging remarks about whistleblowers, which has long been a bipartisan cause on this committee. I'll speak plainly: I have the same doubts now as I did then," Warner said.

Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida appeared inclined to support Ratcliffe and Burr said in a statement after the conclusion of the hearing that he intends to vote to advance Ratcliffe's nomination to the full Senate and then vote for his confirmation.

The pandemic

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the press as the Senate returned to session Monday at the U.S. Capitol.
Saul Loeb / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks to the press as the Senate returned to session Monday at the U.S. Capitol.

The coronavirus disaster provided a grim and inescapable backdrop for all the byplay in the intelligence committee and elsewhere in the Senate this week.

Most of the hearings-goers who might normally pack a session like that scheduled with Ratcliffe were barred from the hearing room. Senators and their staff members kept well apart and observed a number of other precautions even as they convened the hearing.

Burr and Warner wore masks and Burr asked most members of the panel to keep out of the hearing room and watch the proceedings via C-SPAN until it was their turn to ask a question.

The pandemic didn't only change the presentation and, such as it is, the pageantry of a major Senate hearing — it's also directly related to the work of the intelligence community.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., asked Ratcliffe whether he believed Trump had sufficiently warned Americans about the coronavirus beforehand, based on presentations he is known to have received via intelligence reporting.

Ratcliffe said he thought the president had; Harris said later on Tuesday that she believes "the facts say otherwise."

Meanwhile Trump and top aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are leaning heavily into a theory that the coronavirus pandemic is the result of the pathogen escaping from a Chinese lab.

Trump was asked about the evidence that supports that thesis in a Fox TV special on Sunday. The president said a report would be forthcoming that would be "very conclusive."

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a very rare public statement last week affirming that it is looking into the origins of the coronavirus and is attempting "to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan."

Chinese officials and state media channels have howled about the lab accident thesis and Pompeo's comments in particular.

Ratcliffe said in an answer to Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, that he hadn't seen any intelligence reporting that suggested the coronavirus escaped from a lab. But he also told Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., that he hadn't seen any reporting that verified it had originated in the now-infamous Wuhan wildlife markets.

King stressed that Ratcliffe, if confirmed, must recognize what he called the difference between the work and responses required when the question is framed "where did the virus come from?" as compared with "don't you think the virus came from a lab?"

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Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.