The Senate Intelligence Committee is taking steps to hold a confirmation hearing next week for President Donald Trump’s nominee for Director of National Intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe, when lawmakers return to Washington, according to sources familiar with the matter.
The details of the confirmation hearing are still fluid, as the committee has to work through the logistics of holding a hearing amid the coronavirus pandemic that has shut down the Capitol and the rest of the country.
While details remain in flux, the efforts underway to schedule the hearing after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell instructed senators to return next week are the first indication that lawmakers are ready to have a confirmed candidate in the DNI role currently occupied by Trump’s Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell.
Grenell initially accepted the acting DNI role with the expectation that he would only serve in that post temporarily, as sources said he planned to join the Trump campaign as a surrogate once a nominee was confirmed by the Senate.
But the coronavirus outbreak scrambled those plans. While Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, a Republican who opposed Ratcliffe’s nomination when Trump first tapped him for the role last year, signaled he was prepared to support the pick this time around, the Texas Republican’s chances of being confirmed took a hit when the pandemic cast a cloud of uncertainty over Congress’ ability to hold hearings and vote on nominees.
As a result, both Trump and Grenell had both accepted the possibility that Ratcliffe might not get a confirmation hearing for months, a source familiar with their thinking told CNN. Grenell was prepared to stay acting DNI through the presidential election in November, the source said, adding that the Trump loyalist had become comfortable in the role despite his lack of prior intelligence experience.
The plans for the Senate Intelligence Committee to move forward with Ratcliffe’s confirmation process suggest lawmakers would prefer to end Grenell’s tenure atop the intelligence community sooner rather than later, though it is clear some Democrats remain concerned with the precedent that would be set by confirming someone with a well-documented history of partisanship as DNI.
A spokeswoman for Burr declined to comment.
The President’s relationship with the intelligence community has been difficult since before his swearing in, as Trump has made unsubstantiated claims that a “deep state” of career officials is out to get him. He’s never accepted the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help him win, and a briefing on Russia’s intentions in 2020 helped lead to the ouster of his last acting Director of National Intelligence, Joseph Maguire.
Grenell, a loyal ally of the President without an intelligence background, has had a contentious relationship with Capitol Hill since he took over in February. Democrats have accused him of carrying out a purge of top intelligence officials during his short tenure as acting DNI, and he’s responded by striking a combative tone with lawmakers, signaling he has little regard for congressional oversight.
The Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, sent Grenell a letter recently requesting information related to the departures of several top intelligence officials, including the inspector general who informed Congress of the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment.
Burr and Warner jointly sent a letter to Grenell last month following the departure of top officials at the National Counterterrorism Center, telling him to consult with the committee before making more changes to staffing at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and to wait for a permanent director.
And House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff has demanded Grenell provide the committee with information on the departures, which Grenell responded to without addressing Schiff’s questions, accusing the California Democrat of treating the intelligence community like it’s a relationship “between a hedge fund and a distressed asset.”
The decision to move forward with Ratcliffe’s confirmation comes as Burr’s relationship with the White House has deteriorated in recent months, while the North Carolina Republican faces criticism over stock sales he made ahead of the coronavirus-induced economic downturn. The White House views Warner as having too much influence over the panel, despite its long history of bipartisanship, according to a source familiar with issue.
Trump’s view of Burr took another hit after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s latest report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, which reaffirmed the intelligence community’s assessment that the Kremlin developed a preference for then-candidate Trump and interfered on his behalf. Trump, who has repeatedly refused to accept that Russia was helping him, said last week at a press conference he had not seen the report.
Trump first announced his intent to nominate Ratcliffe to become director of national intelligence last year after the former intelligence chief, Dan Coats, resigned from the job. But that effort was quickly derailed after Senate Republicans voiced concerns following discrepancies that emerged in his background and his partisan record as a member of the House Intelligence Committee, which he joined in 2019.
Ratcliffe withdrew his name from consideration amid the scrutiny, and became a key defender of the President during the House’s impeachment hearings in the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committee.
After the Senate impeachment trial concluded, the President went forward with Ratcliffe as his pick once again, formally nominating him for the role after the unceremonious departure of acting DNI Joseph Maguire. The confirmation hearing is sure to be contentious, with Democrats likely to press Ratcliffe on his views on Russia’s election meddling, the President’s request from Ukraine for dirt on his political rival and the President’s general distrust of the intelligence community.