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Intel chief nominee Ratcliffe says he won’t be swayed by politics

WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 believed that Russia had 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 intelligence committee.

Ratcliffe also pledged that 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.

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

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 will be 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 House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., 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.

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 presidential race.

The questioning is expected to be contentious, with Democrats decrying what they say is Trump’s politicization of the intelligence agencies and his tendency to nominate officials who are loyal to him, regardless of expertise.

Warner referenced the departure of at least six intelligence officials who have been fired, ousted 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. Some senators who previously seemed cool to Ratcliffe’s nomination appeared to soften.

Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a critical GOP swing vote on the panel, pointedly said last summer that she had never heard of Ratcliffe before he was nominated. But last week she said that she had spoken with him and concluded that he does have the experience “to meet the statutory standard” for the position.

“His knowledge of cybersecurity is particularly important given the challenges our country faces,” said Collins, who is in a tough reelection race this year. She added that she pressed Ratcliffe to “deliver objective analysis, regardless of the president’s views on an intelligence issue.”

The Maine Republican’s supportive statement indicates that Ratcliffe could be easily approved by the panel and then confirmed on the floor. But he will first have to face rigorous questioning at the hearing, including from Republicans, on his thoughts on Atkinson’s dismissal and on the work of the U.S. intelligence community, which Trump has repeatedly and openly criticized.

He will also be questioned on his experience and his resume, after news reports last year suggested that 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.

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.

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.”

Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.