May 5, 2020 / 3:27 PM / 22 days ago

Senators question Trump pick for top U.S. spy in 'different' hearing

WASHINGTON, May 5 (Reuters) - U.S. senators from both parties questioned on Tuesday whether President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead U.S. intelligence would act independently of the president, in the first public hearing in the Senate during the coronavirus pandemic.

“This hearing will be a little bit different...We have a sparse crowd,” Republican Senator Richard Burr, the committee’s chairman, said as he began the Senate Intelligence panel’s confirmation hearing for U.S. Representative John Ratcliffe to lead the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies.

Trump nominated Ratcliffe, a member of the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, to be director of national intelligence last summer. The nomination was dropped amid questions about his lack of experience and partisan reputation but the Republican president nominated him again this year.

The committee’s top Democrat, Senator Mark Warner, also said he was concerned about partisanship from Ratcliffe, a strongly outspoken supporter of Trump during impeachment hearings last year, especially regarding intelligence oversight and whisteblowers.

“I still have some of the same doubts now as I had back in August,” Warner said.

Burr, who privately criticized Ratcliffe when his name was first floated last year, now appeared more sympathetic.

Trump infuriated Democrats and attracted criticism from some Republicans by firing Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who sent Congress a whistleblower complaint alleging that Trump sought to persuade Ukraine’s president to collect potentially damaging information on former Vice President Joe Biden, a rival to Trump as he seeks re-election in November.

That report became central to Trump’s impeachment.

Ratcliffe repeatedly pledged to act independently. “The intelligence I deliver will not be subject to outside influence,” he said.

The large Senate hearing room was far emptier than usual. Ratcliffe’s family did not attend. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft supported his candidacy in written remarks.

Some staff and senators wore masks into the room, but removed them to speak. Ratcliffe did not wear a mask. Members of the press were limited to a small number, who provided pool reports.

Burr closely questioned Ratcliffe about his view of Russian interference in U.S. elections. The nominee said he agreed that Russia sought to sow discord in the United States and interfere in the 2016 and 2018 campaigns.

The Republican president has rejected intelligence community conclusions that Moscow sought to boost his candidacy.

“I will deliver the unvarnished truth, it won’t be shaded for anyone,” Ratcliffe said under questioning from Senator Susan Collins, considered one of the Senate’s most moderate Republicans.

Burr said he planned a quick committee vote on whether to recommend Ratcliffe to the full Senate, where Republicans hold a slim 53 to 47-seat majority. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle Editing by Alistair Bell)

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