WASHINGTON — The Senate confirmed John Ratcliffe as director of national intelligence on Thursday, with Democrats refusing to support the nomination.
All Democrats opposed Ratcliffe, making him the first DNI to be installed on a partisan vote since the position was created in 2005. The tally was 49-44.
Ratcliffe will take over the agency at a time the nation faces threats from Iran and North Korea, Russian disinformation campaigns, and tensions with China over rising competition and the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, the current temporary DNI, Richard Grinell has caused Democrats greater concern for how they have been investigating past actions within the intelligence agencies.
The Texas Republican seemed unlikely to get the position when Trump in February announced plans to nominate him, as he had already been selected for the job last year and then withdrew after Republicans questioned his experience. But senators warmed to him as they grew concerned about the intelligence community and wanted a permanent, confirmed director.
Ratcliffe will replace Grenell, the current acting director who has overseen some of personnel changes and slimming down of the staff as recommended by his predecessors.
Democrats allowed a quick vote on Ratcliffe’s nomination, dropping their usual procedural delays in a signal that despite their skepticism, they prefer him in the job over Grenell.
Ratcliffe insisted during his confirmation hearing that he would be an independent leader, but faced skepticism. A member of the House intelligence and judiciary committees, he has been an ardent defender of the president through House impeachment and investigations into Russian interference that have since proved baseless.
Before being elected to Congress in 2014, Ratcliffe was mayor of Heath, Texas, and a U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Texas. When he was first nominated, senators questioned whether he had enough intelligence experience and whether he was picked because of his willingness to defend Trump.
But given a second chance, Ratcliffe worked to separate himself from the president at his confirmation hearing, including by saying he believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, a conclusion Trump has resisted. He said he would communicate to Trump the intelligence community’s findings even if he knew Trump disagreed with them and might fire him.
Trump has rejected intelligence community assessments at odds with his own viewpoint.
The DNI in recent weeks has been declassifying information from the Russia investigation that may cast senior Obama administration officials — including former vice president and 2020 Trump opponent Joe Biden — in a negative light.
Last week, for instance, Senate Republicans released a declassified list of the many former Obama administration and intelligence officials who requested the identity of an American from intelligence reports. The American turned out to be former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn.
That raises the question whether the Obama administration was the one politicizing the intelligence community, not Trump.
There also have been pushes from some Democrats, and even Flynn’s own lawyer, to release transcripts of phone calls during the presidential transition period between Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those communications, though the Justice Department has since moved to dismiss the case because there was no material reason to question Flynn.