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Divided Senate confirms Texas Rep. John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence

Three-term congressman and former U.S. attorney, a top Trump defender on impeachment, will fill the U.S. spy chief post that’s been vacant since August.

Updated Friday at 12:30 p.m. with Ratcliffe swearing-in set for Tuesday morning, and resignation from Congress effective May 22.

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Senate confirmed three-term Texas congressman John Ratcliffe on Thursday as director of national intelligence, putting the former prosecutor and outspoken Trump defender in charge of the CIA and other spy agencies over strong objections from Democrats who view him as an unrelenting partisan.

“John Ratcliffe will lead the intelligence community in countering threats from great powers, rogue nations and terrorists, and ensuring that work is untainted by political bias,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said during the floor debate.

The vote was 49-44, representing the most opposition for a U.S. spy chief since Congress created the post after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Only Republicans voted for confirmation, two days after the Intelligence Committee recommended approval on an 8-7 party line vote.

Ratcliffe will be sworn in on Tuesday morning. He resigned from Congress effective Friday. The seat will remain vacant until January.

The minority leader, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the Texan failed to allay deep concerns about his qualifications or ability to resist political pressure and set aside his loyalty to President Donald Trump. Democrats were alarmed that he refused to say he believes Russia meddled in the 2016 election with the goal of helping Trump win — the unanimous judgment of the intelligence community he now will lead, but a touchy topic for the president.

The post, Schumer said, “requires unimpeachable integrity, deep experience and the independence and backbone to speak truth to power. … Unfortunately, Mr Ratcliffe doesn’t even come close to meeting that high bar."

The director of national intelligence oversees 17 spy agencies, including the CIA and National Security Agency, and serves as the president’s top adviser on intelligence.

Ratcliffe, 54, has no direct experience in any of those agencies, though he did some counterterrorism work as a federal prosecutor, which included a stint as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas under President George W. Bush. During that time he also served as mayor of Heath, a small Rockwall County town. In 2014, he ousted 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall in the GOP primary, easily winning reelection in a district that runs from just east of Dallas to Texarkana, in the state’s northeast corner.

He caught Trump’s eye with pointed questioning of special counsel Robert Mueller and again during the impeachment hearings, and he served as a spokesman for the defense during the impeachment trial.

The president first tried to install him as DNI last July. But senators in both parties openly questioned his readiness for the post. He withdrew in less than a week.

The reception this time around was far warmer from Republicans.

Democrats remained unpersuaded. They accused Ratcliffe of being evasive on the legality of waterboarding, refusing to say if he considered that interrogation technique to be a form of torture. His stance on Russian election meddling was a particular irritant, and Schumer said that in a call this week that Ratcliffe refused to promise to alert Congress if Russia or any other country attempts to interfere in another U.S. election.

“That is not the kind of DNI we need," Schumer said, especially with a president who, “by baselessly firing one inspector general after another … has shown he will not tolerate anyone standing up to his personal political interests, right or wrong.”

Senators wore masks as they took turns filing into the chamber to cast their votes.

Mixed reviews

McConnell’s remarks were the most effusive on Ratcliffe’s behalf during the debate. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, was more reserved, saying that “Congressman Ratcliffe will have tremendous power to do good,” as long as he remembers that the intelligence community answers to Congress.

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in a statement that his friend and fellow Texan “has served the men and women of Texas with honor and distinction in the House, and I am confident he will continue to serve all Americans with those same qualities in his new role."

At his May 5 confirmation hearing, Ratcliffe assured senators that he would not let partisan considerations or loyalty to Trump color his advice.

“As the president’s principal intelligence adviser I would ensure that all intelligence is collected, analyzed and reported without bias, prejudice or political influence,” he promised.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., argued that regardless of his promise to set partisanship aside, “He is so eager to serve power he will twist the truth, as he demonstrated again and again through this confirmation process."

Wyden accused Ratcliffe of “blatant misrepresentation and politicization of intelligence” by distancing himself from the unanimous conclusion of spy agencies, and the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee, that Russia tried to help Trump win in 2016, and by asserting — incorrectly — that those agencies concluded that the meddling did not affect the outcome.

“If John Ratcliffe is willing to misrepresent intelligence assessments that are already public and that everyone can read for themselves, there’s no telling how he would misrepresent intelligence that is still classified,” Wyden said. “For John Ratcliffe, the intelligence doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he make Donald Trump happy, and if Donald Trump doesn’t want to acknowledge that the Russians helped him, then those are John Ratcliffe’s marching orders.”

Wyden also tweaked the nominee for refusing to say that federal law barring warrantless wiretaps on Americans is binding, instead finding “wiggle room to suggest that, whatever the statute said, the president might have ways to go around it. … This is where John Ratcliffe could be truly dangerous.”

But Rep. Will Hurd, a San Antonio Republican who served with Ratcliffe on the House Intelligence Committee, and a former undercover CIA officer, lauded the confirmation.

“The future of our intelligence community looks much brighter now," Hurd said. "The position requires someone of John’s caliber.”

Scramble in East Texas

Ratcliffe’s House seat is likely to remain vacant until January. Gov. Greg Abbott does not plan to call a special election, an aide said.

State GOP chairman James Dickey has set a meeting for Aug. 8 in Sulphur Springs at which GOP county and precinct chairs from the district will pick a replacement nominee for the November ballot.

Texas Democrats assert that Republicans would “brazenly” violate state elections law by trying to replace a nominee at this point, but have decided not to try to block the move because the district is so overwhelmingly Republican, Ratcliffe would likely collect the most votes if he stays on the ballot, and a subsequent special election would just favor Republicans anyway.

Dickey said he is “100% confident” the party has the legal right to pick a new nominee, and “whether it’s hundreds of voters or hundreds of thousands of voters, I trust the voters to make the right choice."

Ratcliffe’s former district chief of staff, Jason Ross of Rockwall, is already jockeying. His campaign website is full of photos of himself with Ratcliffe. Rockwall City Council member Trace Johannesen also is running, among others.

Ratcliffe will replace Ric Grenell, a pro-Trump Fox News commentator when the president named him ambassador to Germany and then, in February, acting intelligence director. That was after Trump fired the previous acting director, retired Adm. Joseph Maguire, who angered Trump when a subordinate testified to Congress that in the view of the U.S. intelligence community, Russia prefers to see Trump win the 2020 election.

The last Senate-confirmed director resigned last August: Dan Coats, who represented Indiana in the Senate and House for 25 years before a stint as ambassador in Berlin.

Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called Ratcliffe a “worthy successor,” though a range of national security experts disagreed, warning that Ratcliffe lacks the depth in intelligence or foreign affairs held by Coats and predecessors such as James Clapper. Clapper, a Trump critic, rose to general in the Air Force and ran the Defense Intelligence Agency before President Barack Obama tapped him for the post.

Todd J. Gillman. Todd has been Washington Bureau Chief since 2009, six years after joining the bureau. Before that he covered East Texas, City Hall and politics. He started at The Dallas Morning News in 1989 as an intern. He has been elected twice to the White House Correspondents’ Association board, with a term ending in 2020. Todd has a Master in Public Policy from Harvard and a BA from Johns Hopkins in international studies.

tgillman@dallasnews.com @toddgillman
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