Trump’s spy chief pick grilled over claims intel shows coronavirus originated in Chinese lab

"Whether you're talking about the president, whether you're talking about Nancy Pelosi, Mitch McConnell – anyone's view of what they want intelligence to be will never affect the intelligence I deliver. Never," Ratcliffe said in response to a question from recent Susan Collins from Maine, a major Republican in the panel.

If confirmed as Director of National Intelligence, Ratcliffe would lead the 17 agencies that make up the intelligence community as head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, created in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Ratcliffe has noticed Tuesday's confirmation hearing at ODNI and has met with agency bosses to get their perspectives.


Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said after the hearing that he believed Ratcliffe demonstrated that he would "serve in an independent capacity." Burr, a Republican from North Carolina, said he hoped the committee would vote to approve his nomination as soon as next week.

But Democrats said they still had reservations that Ratcliffe could maintain independence from the president.

"So many members basically asked him the same question, and he gave well-crafted answers, not answers that at least left me with the notion that he's going to protect the community that's currently under attack," said Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the panel's top Democrat.

Rep. Texas Republican John Ratcliffe is sworn in Tuesday before a Senate intelligence committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

& # 39; All roads lead to China & # 39;

Ratcliffe said his primary focus for the intelligence community would be on the impact of coronavirus around the world, as well as questions about its origins in Wuhan, China.


"If confirmed, the intelligence community will be laser focused on getting all the answers we can about how this happened, when this happened, and I commit to giving you as much transparency as the law allows and with due regard for sources and methods," said Ratcliffe .

Ratcliffe said he is looking at China as the "biggest threat actor" for the US right now, citing China's role in the coronavirus outbreak along with cyber security and technology issues. "All roads lead to China," he said.

Ratcliffe faced questions from senators in both parties about the origin of the virus, which has become a politically charged question after Trump said he had seen evidence that gave him a "high degree of confidence" the virus originated in a lab. Senator Angus King, a Maine Independent who caucuses with Democrats, asked Ratcliffe if he had seen evidence that it originated in a lab. He said he hadn't. Senator Tom Cotton, a Republican in Arkansas, then asked Ratcliffe if he had seen evidence that the virus originated in a Wuhan market. He also said he had not done so.

CNN reported Monday that Iintelligence shared between Five Eyes nations indicates that it is "highly unlikely" that the coronavirus outbreak spread as a result of a laboratory accident, but rather occurred in a Chinese market, according to two Western officials citing the intelligence assessment.

However, Ratcliffe noted Tuesday that it had been a while since he had received a classified coronavirus orientation as a member of the House Intelligence Committee because Congress has been out of session due to coronavirus.


King said he brought up the case because he was worried about "quitting shopping" with the intelligence community.


"That's where it worries me that the president has apparently pushed the intelligence community to find what he wants to find," King said. The question should be: & # 39; Where did the virus come from? & # 39; don't & # 39; Don't you think it came from a lab? & # 39; … Because if they torment intelligence before it comes to them, they will make bad decisions. "

Ratcliffe replied that he shared King's feeling in general about intelligence politicization.

"I can't comment on things that haven't happened yet … I think I've been very clear, what someone wants the intelligence to say, won't affect the intelligence from me, what I deliver," Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe avoids Trump's controversy

But Ratcliffe refused to weigh in on more of Trump's controversy with the intelligence community, from the president's unwillingness to accept the finding that Russia was trying to help him in the 2016 election to firing several senior intelligence officials, including former IC Inspector General Michael Atkinson, which alerted Congress about complaints from Ukraine whistleblowers who eventually triggered Trump's persecution.

When asked about the shooting, Ratcliffe said he was unfamiliar with the Justice Department's legal opinion on whether the whistleblower complaint met the legal requirement to notify Congress. "It's a legal question that I don't know the answer to," Ratcliffe said.

Why Donald Trump firing the intelligence community IG is so, so violent

And Ratcliffe declined to answer a question from Warner about whether he agreed with the Senate Intelligence Committee report confirming the intelligence community assessment Russia was trying to help Trump in 2017, when the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee disputed that finding in 2018.

"I respect both committees, but I haven't seen the underlying intelligence to tell me why there is a difference of opinion between the two committees," Ratcliffe said.

Ratcliffe seems to have the support he needs from Republicans who were skeptical the first time he was elected, but Democrats pressed him Tuesday on his ability to be independent of Trump's open distrust of the intelligence community.

Ratcliffe to replace US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a staunch loyalist to the president who was named acting director of national intelligence in February after the radiation of Joseph Maguire. Grenell has turned his head on Congress since taking over the role.

Warner said he had concerns about what he described as Ratcliffe's "inexperience, partisanship and statements from the past that seemed to embellish" his post.

"Some have suggested that your most important qualification for confirmation of this post is that you are not Ambassador Grenell. But frankly, that's not enough," Warner said in his opening statement.

Ratcliffe promised in his opening statement to deliver objective intelligence to the president and Congress.

"Let me be very clear. Whatever anyone wants our intelligence to reflect, the intelligence I give, if confirmed, will not be affected or altered as a result of outside influence," Ratcliffe said in the opening statement.

Ratcliffe testifies for the Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

First Senate consultation with social distancing

Ratcliffe's confirmation hearing is the first Senate hearing to be held since the chamber was restored this week in a new, socially distant world in the US capital.

The hearing was closed to the public, the number of aides and reporters was limited and senators rotated the hearing into small groups for half an hour's blocking. Normally, the auditorium would have upwards of 100 people for a high-profile confirmation, but about two dozen were present Tuesday morning when Burr gaveled to the session.

A nominee's family members, for example, almost always attend confirmation hearings, but Ratcliffes had to monitor remotely Tuesday. Ratcliffe was to be introduced by a former Attorney General in the George W. Bush administration, John Ashcroft. Instead, Senate Intelligence Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, read snippets of Ashcroft's planned statement.

Burr, who was cool against Ratcliffe's nomination last year, said in March when Ratcliffe was re-nominated that he would support the election. In a sign of the bipartisan concern surrounding Trump's treatment of intelligence officials and the firing of Atkinson, Burr's first question revolved around the importance of the intelligence community's inspector general.

The Democrats questioned Ratcliffe about statements from both the former and the president. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet asked Ratcliffe if he agreed with the president, saying he chose the Texas Republican because the intelligence agencies had "run crazy."

"I don't think the men and women in the intelligence community are going crazy," Ratcliffe said.

Asked if he believed the president's comments hurt the morale of intelligence, Ratcliffe said, "I hope not."

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, presented Ratcliffe with his statements made during the House's impeachment hearings last year about the Ukraine Whistleblower, which came under attack by the president and his allies in Congress.

Ratcliffe replied that he did not want to "relite" the inquiry law.

"My problem was not with the notifier, my problem was what I saw as a lack of proper way in the house process," he said.

Ratcliffe was later pressured by Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, to commit unequivocally to submitting credible whistleblower complaints to Congress, a matter that stemmed from the fight over Ukraine's whistleblower report last year.

"You want it both ways," Wyden said after Ratcliffe said he wanted to follow the law. "You will try to portray yourself as a defender of the Constitution and then water it down with the specifications."

Ratcliffe pledged at Tuesday's hearing to hold the annual global threats hearing, an annual intelligence community assessment that has previously been marked by public testimony from top officials but was not yet scheduled this year. CNN reported in January US intelligence officials quietly asked the Senate and House intelligence committees not to hold public hearings on this year's assessment after testimonials from agency executives last year received an angry response from Trump, according to a source familiar with the talks.

This story has been updated with further developments Tuesday.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Manu Raju, Alison Main, Michael Conte, Jamie Crawford, Alex Marquardt and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.

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