WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump's pick to lead the US intelligence community said Tuesday that he would focus on China as the country's greatest threat, saying Beijing was determined to supplant the United States' superpower position.
But John Ratcliffe, an outspoken Trump defender nominated to become director of national intelligence, came under pressure in a Senate confirmation hearing over whether he would politicize the intelligence process to keep the president happy.
It's the second time Ratcliffe has sought the crucial position -- which has lacked a permanent office holder for nearly nine months -- after he withdrew from consideration in August following questions over his experience and credentials.
"I view China as the greatest threat actor right now," Ratcliffe, a Republican congressman from Texas, told the Senate Intelligence Committee.
"Look with respect to COVID-19 and the role China plays; the race to 5G; cybersecurity issues: all roads lead to China," he told the panel.
He cited China's geopolitical thrust through its "Belt and Road" global infrastructure initiative, its programs to acquire strategic technologies quickly, and its "military-civil fusion initiative" that keeps the private sector beholden to government priorities.
"These are all spokes of the same initiative and that's for China to supplant us as the world's superpower."
Ratcliffe added: "We very clearly don't want an authoritarian regime like the Chinese Communist Party setting standards in the world marketplace."
- Other officials forced out -
Ratcliffe appeared before the first committee hearing held in Congress after a weeks-long hiatus forced by coronavirus, with masks required for those not speaking and hand sanitizer accompanying bottles of water for those addressing the chamber.
The director of national intelligence job has been vacant since Dan Coats, who was regularly at odds with the president, left in August. Trump then forced out other top intelligence officials who were, like Coats, seen as not politically loyal to the White House.
Trump has repeatedly accused the US intelligence community of plotting against him as a "deep state," fuelling increasing resentment among the US spy community.
In July Trump first nominated Ratcliffe as DNI but he quickly withdrew in the face of strong resistance in Congress, even from among some senior Republicans. Lawmakers faulted him for an extremely thin resume on national security matters -- just one year serving on the House Intelligence Committee.
The DNI job requires overseeing and coordinating 16 other intelligence bodies, including the CIA, the National Security Agency, and the FBI's counterintelligence division.
Trump then named counterterrorism official Joseph Maguire as acting DNI, only to remove him in February after a Maguire aide told Congress that Russia was meddling in the 2020 election and had developed a preference for Trump.
Trump then named his ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, another strong political defender, as acting DNI, and renominated Ratcliffe as permanent DNI.
That has left the Democrats and Republicans who opposed Ratcliffe last year -- including, it is believed, Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr -- caught between approving him as permanent DNI or accepting Grenell in the job for another half year.
Ratcliffe stressed in the hearing that he would "speak truth to power" and not shape intelligence reports to the president's preferences.
But Democrats expressed doubts, noting his rejection of the intelligence community's conclusion that Russia tried to help Trump in the 2016 election.
"Never has anyone more unqualified been formally nominated by a president to lead the US intelligence community," former CIA chief of staff Larry Pfeiffer wrote of Ratcliffe Tuesday.
However, he said on Twitter the committee should confirm him in the job, "because there's never been anyone less qualified to sit in the DNI's chair that the current acting DNI Ric Grenell."