Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) said during his confirmation hearing for the Director of National Intelligence that if confirmed he would immediately focus on assessing the origins of the coronavirus and its “geopolitical consequences.”
“The intelligence community… will be laser focused on how this happened and when this happened,” Ratcliffe said, adding that his office would analyze China’s role in the spread of the virus.
“I view China as the greatest threat actor right now. Look at what we’re dealing with coronavirus and 5G,” Ratcliffe said. “We very clearly do not want an authoritarian regime… setting standards in the world marketplace.”
Ratcliffe said if confirmed he would look to shift resources in the office to ensure his team was doing enough to combat Beijing’s rising power and the threats that it poses to U.S. national security.
The Trump administration has for weeks blasted China for its role in the spread of the virus, saying officials in Beijing withheld essential information that could have helped other countries prepare for an outbreak. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continue to push the theory that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan. But other U.S. and foreign allies have pushed back against that claim, saying there is no evidence to support it.
Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, also the U.S. ambassador to Germany, said last week it was the intelligence community’s assessment that there is a broad understanding that the virus was not manmade or genetically modified. He did not specify whether China released the virus accidentally from a laboratory.
Ratcliffe appeared in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday more than eight months after he withdrew his initial nomination for the position last August.
President Donald Trump nominated the Dallas-area congressman for the position after former Director Dan Coats submitted his resignation late last summer. Ratcliffe had impressed the president in hearings on Capitol Hill, where he aggressively questioned former Special Counsel Robert Mueller about his investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Ratcliffe, viewed by the White House as a strong Trump supporter, had for years been considered for multiple posts in the administration. He sits on the House judiciary and intelligence committees. He is also a member of the House ethics committee.
During the hearing Tuesday, Ratcliffe repeatedly told senators that, if confirmed, he would not be swayed by anyone—including President Trump—during his time as director.
“Anyone’s views on what they want the intelligence to be will never impact the intelligence that I deliver,” he said. “I won’t shade intelligence for anyone.”
Senator Martin Heinrich (D-NM) pressed Ratcliffe on whether the president, in his conversations with the congressman, asked the congressman about his loyalty.
“I was not asked,” Ratcliffe replied. “My loyalty is to the Constitution and the rule of law.”
But during the hearing Tuesday, Ratcliffe repeatedly dodged questions about what he would do if the president pushed back on the assessments of the intelligence community.
Trump has, for the last several years, dismissed the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, claiming that if Moscow had indeed meddled, it did not change the outcome. But a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee on the election concluded that Russia did, in fact, favor Trump over Hillary Clinton during the course of its intervention.
Ratcliffe said while he respected the committee’s findings he was also aware of a 2018 House Intelligence report that disputed a 2017 intelligence community assessment that Russia interfered with the goal of helping Trump.
Ratcliffe said he could not make a determination on which report was more accurate because he had not seen the underlying intelligence.
Following his nomination last year, news surfaced that Ratcliffe had overstated parts of his résumé. The congressman had publicly stated that, as a federal prosecutor in the Eastern District of Texas, he “arrested 300 illegal immigrants on a single day,” according to his campaign materials and the House website at the time. But Ratcliffe only played a supporting role in that operation.
He had also stated he tried individuals who funneled money to the terrorist group Hamas. In reality, though, Ratcliffe had merely investigated issues related to the funneling of that money and did not prosecute the case, according to a report by The New York Times.
Trump withdrew Ratcliffe’s nomination soon after those reports surfaced, posting on Twitter: “Our great Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe is being treated very unfairly by the LameStream Media. Rather than going through months of slander and libel, I explained to John how miserable it would be for him and his family to deal with these people.”
Since the congressman’s nomination withdrawal last August, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has seen various individuals take on the role of acting director.
Days after the Ratcliffe nomination news broke August 2, 2019, Sue Gordon, then the deputy director of national intelligence, submitted her resignation. Her departure came after the White House blocked her chances at becoming director. Trump instead named Retired Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire as the acting director. Then, in February, Maguire testified on Capitol Hill that the intelligence community believed that Russia was actively taking steps to interfere in the 2020 election. And with that, Maguire was out, too.
Enter Grenell, former ambassador to Germany and a fierce Trump loyalist. Over the last several months, he’s served as both ambassador and acting director of national intelligence.
Since taking on the position, Grenell has focused much of his time on publicly supporting Trump while spending little time focusing on ambassador duties, officials familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast.
If the party-line vote holds, Ratcliffe will be the new director of national intelligence, raising questions about where Grenell will move next. He’s already announced he will not be returning to Germany.
If Ratcliffe is not confirmed, Grenell will stay on in an acting capacity as director.