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Rep. John Ratcliffe Testifies Before The Senate Intelligence Committee


It has been a whirlwind day of news in Washington today. Vice President Mike Pence says the coronavirus task force will wind down in the coming weeks. And a federal scientist filed a whistleblower complaint after raising concerns about an unproven coronavirus treatment pushed by President Trump. More on those stories elsewhere in the show.


First, the Senate is back to work this week. And one of the first items up for debate is President Trump's pick for the Director of National Intelligence, Texas Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe. The DNI is the top intelligence job in the country. And it's been held by two interim appointees for the past nine months, a highly unusual state of affairs. The confirmation hearing today was highly unusual, as well. Joining us now is NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre.

Hi, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: All right. Set the scene for us. What, dare I ask, was different about this hearing? Usually, they're in crowded rooms but not today.

MYRE: Yeah, absolutely not - something we hadn't seen before. So a big, important hearing in a big room in the Senate Dirksen Office Building was almost empty. And the committee chairman, by the way, Richard Burr, has now grown a full beard, in case anybody was wondering. What we saw was a small, rotating group or groups of senators come in and out of the room to ask questions. Their chairs were spaced apart, so they didn't have to sit too close to each other. Most wore masks. A few wore them while they were asking questions. Most just had them hanging around their necks while they were speaking. And the nominee, meanwhile, John Ratcliffe, was not, as we might expect at a table right in front of them. He was far away at the opposite end. It was almost like they were speaking from opposite ends of a tennis court. Just a handful of aides. And this could be the new normal up on Capitol Hill during the length of the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: If he is confirmed as director of national intelligence, there are a lot of pressing questions, like the origins of the coronavirus in China. What did he say about that?

MYRE: Right. So the Trump administration is saying that there's evidence linking the coronavirus to a lab in Wuhan, China. But they haven't produced any evidence. And the intelligence community says it's investigating but hasn't reached any conclusions. And a lot of scientists think this seafood market is the most likely scenario. Asked if he'd seen evidence pointing to the lab, Ratcliffe said no, he hadn't. Asked if he'd seen evidence pointing to the seafood market, he said no, he hadn't and added the caveat that he hadn't had a briefing recently. So it was a little disappointing in terms of getting information.

SHAPIRO: Explain for us why these are such important questions if Ratcliffe becomes the director of national intelligence.

MYRE: Well, in this job, the person oversees all 17 intelligence agencies. And also, he briefs the president, more or less, daily with the presidential daily briefing. This has not been an easy job. It can shape the president's views. But there can often be a lot of friction. Ratcliffe would be the fourth DNI, either permanent or acting, in just the past year.

SHAPIRO: In Congress, he became known as a staunch Trump loyalist during the Russia and Ukraine investigations. How does he square that with the impartial role that the director of national intelligence is supposed to play?

MYRE: This is precisely what the Democrats asked him time and again. And time and again, Ratcliffe said he would deliver the unvarnished truth to the president. Let's have a listen to him.


JOHN RATCLIFFE: I'm sure going to get a lot of questions about what the president says or what the president thinks. Regardless of what he says or how he says them - will not impact the intelligence that I deliver.

MYRE: So Ratcliffe spoke in that very poised, reserved, measured tone throughout his testimony today. He gave no strong opinions. Often, he seemed to be saying yes and to no to the same questions. So those who were looking for clearer answers probably came away pretty frustrated. But these kinds of responses will probably help him get him confirmed by the Senate's Republican majority.

SHAPIRO: That is NPR's Greg Myre.

Thanks, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.