Senate Approves John Ratcliffe for Top Intelligence Job in Sharply Split Vote


WASHINGTON — A divided Senate voted on Thursday to confirm Representative John Ratcliffe of Texas, a fierce conservative ally of President Trump’s with relatively little intelligence experience, to become the next director of the nation’s spy agencies.

Democrats opposed the nomination en masse, but they agreed to dispense with the normal rules and accelerate Mr. Ratcliffe’s confirmation in an effort to more quickly oust the acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, whose actions have irked lawmakers in both parties. The final tally in the Senate was 49 to 44, with Mr. Ratcliffe receiving far more votes against him than any other nominee to the intelligence post since it was created in late 2004.

The speedy confirmation of Mr. Ratcliffe was a sharp change of fortune from last summer, when Mr. Trump first tapped him to oversee the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies. At that time, Mr. Ratcliffe withdrew from consideration within days amid doubts about his qualifications, his partisan political background as a House member and reports that he had inflated his résumé from his time as a federal prosecutor in Texas.

Mr. Ratcliffe’s luck turned after Mr. Trump replaced the previous acting intelligence chief, Joseph Maguire, with Mr. Grenell, the ambassador to Germany and a fierce partisan on behalf of the president. As the acting director, Mr. Grenell has embarked on a campaign to declassify sensitive records that would benefit Mr. Trump politically and reorganize his office, moves that prompted unease among some on Capitol Hill.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and the acting chairman of the Intelligence Committee, said Thursday that he was “confident” that Mr. Ratcliffe would lead the agencies “with integrity” and stressed the importance of having a permanent director approved by the Senate in office.

“In a time when the threats to our nation are many and varied, it is critical to have a Senate-confirmed D.N.I. ensuring the wide array of intelligence agencies are sharing information across lines, coordinating capabilities, and are all working in the furtherance of the same strategic aim of the 21st century,” Mr. Rubio said.

Questions about Mr. Ratcliffe’s preparedness and suitability for the job are likely to follow him into office, particularly among Democrats and career intelligence officials. When Congress created the position almost two decades ago, it envisioned directors who would be nonpartisan national security experts.

Mr. Ratcliffe, by contrast, has served only a brief stint as an acting U.S. attorney in Texas, in an office that sees relatively few national security cases, and joined the House Intelligence Committee only last year. He made his name in Washington in recent years as one of Mr. Trump’s savviest allies in the House, frequently appearing on Fox News to defend the president during the Russia investigation and sharply criticizing the F.B.I. along the way. Ultimately, Mr. Ratcliffe joined a team of House members that helped mount Mr. Trump’s impeachment defense this year.

Mr. Ratcliffe promised during his confirmation to work in a nonpartisan manner, insisting that he would “deliver the unvarnished truth” to the president and Congress, unshaded by political objectives.

That pledge will quickly be put to the test.

He is already under pressure from the White House to appoint Stephen A. Feinberg, a hedge fund chief, to a top intelligence job. Conservatives also want to see more documents declassified and released that are related to the Russia investigation opened during the Obama administration. And the Justice Department is continuing its look at how the F.B.I. and intelligence agencies investigated accusations of Trump campaign ties to Russia.

Democrats said on Thursday that they were unconvinced that Mr. Ratcliffe could put his personal political views aside or stand up to Mr. Trump.

Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said that Mr. Ratcliffe’s confirmation hearing suggested that he would not “speak truth to power; he would surrender to it.” Mr. Wyden had pressed him during the hearing to state his views on Russian election interference, the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, or the firing by Mr. Trump of the intelligence agencies’ inspector general. On each point, Mr. Ratcliffe declined to give the kind of unequivocal statements that Mr. Wyden sought.

“He has demonstrated that he is so eager to serve power, he will twist that truth,” Mr. Wyden said in a speech before Thursday’s vote. “And he demonstrated this again and again.”

Lawmakers’ unease with Mr. Grenell in large measure drove momentum for confirming Mr. Ratcliffe.

After stepping into the job in February, Mr. Grenell began an aggressive remaking of his office. He has announced a 15 percent cut to the National Counterterrorism Center, reorganized the office’s cyberspace oversight, put a new official in charge of intelligence briefings for presidential candidates and elevated the role of a three-star military officer in the national intelligence office.

Those moves, as well as Mr. Grenell’s promotion of career officials, won cautious praise from some former officials, who have said the national intelligence office had grown too large and needed to focus on new threats.

But others, including members of Congress, have expressed concerns that Mr. Grenell ousted career officials, including Russ Travers, the former acting chief of the counterterrorism center, and Deirdre Walsh, the former chief operating officer.

Mr. Grenell has defended his actions as part of an effort to be more transparent, saying some material had been overclassified. What Mr. Grenell ordered declassified was withheld from the public, his supporters said, only because it embarrassed the F.B.I. or intelligence agencies, not because it would endanger secrets if it were public.

Some Republicans have backed up that view and indicated that they will apply their own pressure on the new director to continue providing Congress with sensitive documents on related matters. On Thursday, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, urged Mr. Ratcliffe to follow Mr. Grenell’s lead when he took office.

“Acting Director Grenell is a breath of fresh air,” Mr. Grassley said. “Mr. Ratcliffe has some big shoes to fill, that’s for sure.”

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