Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr opened Tuesday morning’s confirmation hearing for Rep. John Ratcliffe to lead the intelligence community with a nod to the unusual circumstances.
“This hearing will be a little bit different. It is perhaps the first congressional hearing held during the extenuating circumstances of the pandemic,” the North Carolina Republican said. “We have a sparse crowd and an expanded dais, reflective of the committee’s adherence to the guidelines put forth by the Rules Committee and the attending physician.”
Indeed, the traditionally bipartisan Intelligence Committee had the dubious duty Tuesday of convening the first Senate hearing since coronavirus-related restrictions upended life on Capitol Hill.
Sporting a beard that he said was an ode to the late Oklahoma GOP Sen. Tom Coburn, who died on March 28, Burr thanked the committee members and staff, as well as journalists in the room serving as a pool representing the broader congressional press corps.
Burr said the committee was doing its best to “hold this nomination hearing in an open setting, or at least as open as current circumstances allow.”
Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican nominated by President Donald Trump to be the director of national intelligence, could not have his family in attendance for his confirmation hearing because of social distancing requirements.
While the COVID-19 pandemic was ever-present, it did not dominate or overwhelm the hearing. In response to questioning from Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, Ratcliffe said he had not seen intelligence to suggest the origins of the coronavirus were in a laboratory in Wuhan, China — a theory most recently advanced by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
But, Ratcliffe conceded, “it’s been awhile” since his last classified briefing on the pandemic.
In response to a subsequent query from Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas about possible intelligence tying the virus to a wet market in Wuhan, Ratcliffe said he had not seen that either.
The unusual scene — a sparsely populated hearing room, mask-clad senators rotating in and out, and hand sanitizer on prominent display — seemed to have a minimal effect on the substance of the hearing.
Ratcliffe would not say Tuesday whether he agreed with the intelligence community’s consensus that the Russian government favored Trump in 2016 over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
He also declined to commit to publicly releasing information called for in a defense authorization law about the death of Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
“If confirmed as DNI, again, I will ensure that the law is complied with. I realize that the information in the report — if we’re talking about the same thing — is a request for unclassified information,” Ratcliffe said. “If confirmed, I want to look myself at the information to make sure that the information has been classified properly.”
But Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, wanted none of that, saying that since the law already called for release of the intelligence, a classification review would be insufficient.
“That’s not the question. This is a law. This is a law, congressman,” Wyden said. “Consistently, in every one of the areas that I asked you about, with respect to spying, with respect to whistle blowers, now with respect to the law, these are pretty much straightforward yes or no questions.”
“We passed a law that resolved it. It is supposed to be made available now,” Wyden said.
It was Sen. Mark Warner, the Intelligence panel’s top Democrat, who had asked Ratcliffe about whether he would concur with the Senate panel’s bipartisan reporting that backed up the intelligence community's assessment that Russia was acting to favor Trump's 2016 campaign.
Ratcliffe said, “I have no reason to dispute the committee’s finding.”
But the Texas congressman, who has been a member of the House Intelligence Committee, also said he had no reason to dispute the different conclusion on that point reached by Republicans on the House panel.
“I respect both committees, but I have not seen the underlying intelligence to tell me why there is a difference of opinion between the two committees,” Ratcliffe said in response to Warner.
In his opening statement, Warner highlighted concerns about Ratcliffe’s qualifications for the position that have been present since the president first floated the congressman’s name for the DNI job last year.
“I don’t see what has changed since last summer … when the president decided not to proceed with your nomination over concerns about your inexperience, partisanship and past statements that seemed to embellish your record. This includes some particularly damaging remarks about whistle blowers, which has long been a bipartisan cause on this committee,” Warner said. “I’ll speak plainly: I have the same doubts now as I did then.”
Warner conceded, however, that even some skeptics of Ratcliffe may view him as preferable to current acting DNI Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany.
There is little expectation Ratcliffe will get bipartisan support in the committee, but Burr said he would look to advance the nomination as quickly as possible to the floor.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been prioritizing national security positions for confirmation, in addition to Trump’s nominees to be federal judges, so Ratcliffe should quickly reach the Senate floor once the Intelligence panel finishes addressing the nomination.