Senate sets spy chief confirmation hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas loyalist on Trump impeachment team

WASHINGTON — The Senate intelligence committee plans to hold a confirmation hearing next week for John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence, which would put the Dallas-area congressman over the CIA and 16 lesser-known spy agencies, Senate aides said Wednesday.

President Donald Trump has lauded the conservative lawmaker, a former U.S. attorney in East Texas, as one of the “warriors” who stood by him during his impeachment ordeal.

Lawmakers in both parties have expressed qualms about his suitability for the post, though. When Trump named Ratcliffe for the same job last July, complaints about his inexperience in spycraft and other intelligence matters were bipartisan and fierce. The Texan withdrew within a week, later winning his third term in the U.S. House.

“He’s a terrific man. He’s been fantastic at everything he’s done. He’s highly respected,” the president said Feb. 29 after nominating him for DNI for the second time in seven months. “I think he’ll go through a process and it’ll go fairly quickly. … He’s someone who’s really distinguished himself.”

Ratcliffe impressed Trump during hearings involving the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. He further endeared himself during the House impeachment hearings and, later, as a spokesman on the defense team during the Senate trial.

If confirmed, Ratcliffe would replace Ric Grennell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany before Trump installed him as acting DNI in February. Grennell had been a vocal defender on Fox News, and critics also questioned his qualifications for a demanding post that has lacked a Senate-confirmed occupant since August. Some skeptics of the Ratcliffe nomination speculated that Trump chose him as a gambit, to prolong Grennell’s tenure.

Without a nominee, Grennell would have had to leave the job on March 11. With a nominee, he can serve until the Senate confirms Ratcliffe or for six months after the nomination is rejected, according to experts on national security law.

It’s unclear whether sentiment in the Senate has shifted in Ratcliffe’s favor since last summer.

The intelligence chairman, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., opposed his nomination the first time. When Trump sent his name to the Senate again two months ago, Burr vowed to allow the nomination to proceed but expressed no enthusiasm. The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, noted that “serious bipartisan questions were raised about Rep. Ratcliffe’s background and qualifications…. It’s hard for me to see how anything new has happened to change that.”

The 54-year-old congressman has served as mayor of Heath, a small town east of Dallas, as a federal prosecutor and as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas under President George W. Bush. In 2014, he ousted 91-year-old Rep. Ralph Hall in the GOP primary, arguing for fresh blood. Hall died at age 96.

Last July, critics cast Ratcliffe as a partisan hack unqualified to oversee the nation’s sprawling intelligence community. He also faced allegations that he embellished his résumé by boasting of a bigger role than he actually played in a counterterrorism case against the Holy Land Foundation, a charity linked to Hamas.

President Donald Trump attends Game Five of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019. Rep. John Ratcliffe of Heath, Texas, is just below him in the blue blazer.(Will Newton / Getty Images)

At an Oct. 17 rally in Dallas, Trump gave him a generous shout-out, calling him “one of the best lawyers you’ll ever find. He’s slick, he’s smooth, but boy, he’s loyal, he’s, talented, and he’s got them all buffaloed because they’re not as good as him, John Ratcliffe.”

Ten days later, he brought Ratcliffe along to watch Game 5 of the World Series.

National security experts have complained that Ratcliffe lacks the deep intelligence knowledge or foreign affairs background held by previous spy chiefs such as Trump’s only permanent intel chief, Dan Coats, who spent a quarter-century in the Senate and also had a stint as ambassador to Germany. Coats resigned Aug. 15.

James Clapper, a leading Trump critic, was an Air Force general and head of the Defense Intelligence Agency before President Barack Obama tapped him as the nation’s intelligence chief.

But Ratcliffe’s loyalty is unquestioned. Throughout the fall, as the impeachment saga played out, he defended Trump in hearings and on cable TV.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained that he had shown “an unacceptable embrace of conspiracy theories,” asserting that a “clear lack of qualifications and many misleading statements about his résumé” showed that this was a bad choice for such a critical post.

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