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Democrats question U.S. intelligence nominee on qualifications, loyalty to Trump

John Ratcliffe, U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be director of national intelligence, pledged at his confirmation hearing to deliver intelligence free of bias or political influence and said he believes Russia interfered in the last presidential election and could try to do so again.

John Ratcliffe, staunch Trump defender during impeachment, is up for a position vacant nearly a year

Rep. John Ratcliffe of Texas gives his opening statement before the Senate intelligence committee on Tuesday in Washington. Ratcliffe was originally up for nomination as director of national intelligence last year, after Dan Coats stepped down from the role. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee to be director of national intelligence pledged at his confirmation hearing Tuesday to deliver intelligence free of bias, prejudice or political influence and said he believes Russia interfered in the most recent presidential election and could try to do so again.

The comments from Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, were aimed at quelling Democratic concerns that the Trump loyalist could be swayed by political pressure from a president routinely dismissive of intelligence community findings he disagrees with.

"Let me be very clear: regardless of what anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I will provide, if confirmed, will not be impacted or altered as a result of outside pressure," he told the Senate's intelligence committee.

Ratcliffe also pledged he would be "laser-focused" as intelligence director in investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, a task of key concern to Trump and other administration officials, who have publicly raised the idea that it could have emerged from a lab in China. Intelligence agencies say they're investigating.

Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the panel, expressed early skepticism by saying, "I have to say that while I am willing to give you the benefit of the doubt at this hearing, I don't see what has changed since last summer when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination."

Ratcliffe's confirmation hearing comes nine months after Trump first submitted and then abruptly withdrew the three-term lawmaker's nomination. The August withdrawal came after bipartisan Senate criticism that Ratcliffe, one of the president's most ardent defenders during the Russia investigations and Trump's impeachment, was unqualified to oversee 17 U.S. spy agencies.

News reports last year suggested he had embellished some of his accomplishments as a federal prosecutor. Before being elected to Congress in 2014, Ratcliffe was mayor of Heath, Texas, and a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas.

Trump renominated Ratcliffe in February, and his chances of securing the job appear far better, though confirmation is still not guaranteed.

Virginia Sen. Mark Warner said he was skeptical Ratcliffe is any more qualified now to serve in the position than last year when his nomination was rescinded. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

Ratcliffe's confirmation hearing has placed a renewed focus on the intelligence community, which has repeatedly warned this year that Russia is trying anew to interfere in the U.S. presidential race.

Warner referenced the departure of at least six intelligence officials who have been fired or moved aside since Dan Coats left the DNI post last summer. That includes the inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson, who first revealed a whistleblower complaint last fall that led to Trump's impeachment.

"These firings and forced departures from the leadership of the intelligence community have left the ODNI without a single Senate-confirmed leader," Warner said.

Since then, Trump installed loyalist Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, as acting director and continued his shakeup of the intelligence community.

Lawmakers are concerned about the turnover and have said they are eager for a permanent, Senate-confirmed replacement for Coats, who had won bipartisan acclaim.

No knowledge of a 'deep state'

Ratcliffe faced early questioning on his thoughts on Atkinson's dismissal and on the work of the U.S. intelligence community, which Trump has repeatedly and openly criticized.

When asked by New Mexico Democrat Martin Heinrich if he believed there was a "deep state" of officials in the government looking to undermine Trump, Ratcliffe replied: "I don't even know what that is."

He told Warner he did not believe anyone in the intelligence community was specifically acting against the interests of Trump.

Ratcliffe, who sits on the House intelligence, judiciary and ethics committees, has been a fierce defender of the president. He forcefully questioned former special counsel Robert Mueller last summer when he testified about his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Republican committee chair Richard Burr gives opening remarks at the intelligence committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. The hearing was scheduled in one of the Senate's largest meeting rooms, with precautions taken to ensure senators remained far apart during questioning. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

He was also a member of Trump's impeachment advisory team last fall and aggressively questioned witnesses during House impeachment hearings.

After the Democratic-controlled House voted to impeach Trump, Ratcliffe said, "This is the thinnest, fastest and weakest impeachment our country has ever seen."

WATCH l Ratcliffe spars with impeachment witness Bill Taylor in 2019:

Under intense questioning from Republican John Ratcliffe, Ambassador William Taylor asserts that determining the existence of an impeachable offense is not his job 1:09

The hearing was the first in-person one held amid Trump's shakeup of the intelligence community and under drastic new distancing rules to protect Capitol Hill from the coronavirus. The session was only sparsely attended, with members encouraged to watch as much as possible from their offices.

Tuesday's hearing was a test of the Senate's ability to conduct business safely with coronavirus cases still on the rise in the Washington area. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell called his chamber back to work Monday, while Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi kept the House away, saying she had been advised by the Capitol physician that it was not yet safe to convene.

The intelligence panel's hearing, along with others this week, was scheduled in one of the Senate's largest meeting rooms, with precautions taken to ensure senators remained far apart during questioning. The public is still barred from the Capitol.

Republican intelligence committee chair Richard Burr of North Carolina said after the hearing that he expected to schedule a vote soon on Ratcliffe's nomination.

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