Divided Senate confirms Trump loyalist Ratcliffe as U.S. top spy

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate on Thursday confirmed Representative John Ratcliffe, a staunch political ally of President Donald Trump, as director of national intelligence, but by a far slimmer margin than his predecessors as the top U.S. spy.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) testifies before a Senate Intelligence Committee nomination hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., May 5, 2020. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

Ratcliffe was confirmed by 49 to 44, with all “yes” votes coming from Trump’s fellow Republicans and all “no” votes from Democrats. The last DNI, former Republican Senator Dan Coats, was approved by 85-12, but ended up having an uneasy relationship with Trump.

Ratcliffe has far less intelligence experience than any previous director of National Intelligence, a post created 15 years ago to run the country’s 17 intelligence agencies in a more unified way in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

It was the second time Trump suggested Ratcliffe for the post. He was the most junior member of the House Intelligence Committee, with just six months on the panel, when Trump first said he wanted to appoint him.

Republicans, some of whom had reservations about Ratcliffe’s qualifications for the job, highlighted the need for a Senate-confirmed nominee for the national security post after it was filled by interim directors for nine months.

Trump had named two acting directors, most recently Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, another fierce Trump partisan who has faced questions from Democrats about reorganizing his office and efforts to declassify records.

“In a time when the threats to our nation are many and varied, it is critical to have a Senate-confirmed DNI,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, acting chairman of the intelligence committee.

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Trump has often clashed with the findings of intelligence agencies. He dismissed as a Democratic hoax their conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to help Trump. When he first chose Ratcliffe to be DNI, he said the intelligence agencies had “run amok” and he hoped he would rein them in.

During his confirmation hearing, Ratcliffe was pressed by senators, both Republicans and Democrats, on whether he would act independently of the president. Ratcliffe said: “The intelligence I deliver will not be subject to outside influence.”

Senator Ron Wyden, a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, said Ratcliffe would be a threat to democracy. “There is every reason to believe that his public statements would be designed for one purpose, and one purpose only – to please Donald Trump,” he said before Thursday’s vote.

Ratcliffe assumes the position as the country faces a wide range of security threats, including the coronavirus pandemic, stiff competition with China and the widespread expectation that Russia is attempting to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election.

Trump first announced in July that he wanted Ratcliffe for the post.

However, Ratcliffe’s name was withdrawn after just five days when both Democrats and Republicans questioned his qualifications and amid reports he had padded his resume by overstating his role in prosecuting terrorists while serving as a U.S. attorney in Texas.

But Trump nominated him again this year after Ratcliffe’s aggressive work defending the president when the House of Representatives impeached him last year.

(This story has been refiled to add dropped word in headline)

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mary Milliken and Dan Grebler