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What does Trump’s new spy director think of Russia and China?

What does Trump’s new spy director think of Russia and China?
John Ratcliffe has been confirmed as the US’ new director of national intelligence. As he gears up to oversee seventeen intelligence agencies, how will he use these organizations to work with, or against, America’s adversaries?

The Senate confirmed Rep. Ratcliffe to the position on Friday, in a 49-44 vote along party lines. President Trump had previously tipped the Texas Republican for the role last year, before urging him to withdraw his application due to “months of slander and libel” from the “lamestream media.” The supposed slander centered around Ratcliffe’s defense of Trump during Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ‘Russiagate’ probe, which stoked fears among liberal pundits that Ratcliffe would partner up with the president to restaff these agencies with Trump loyalists.

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In his new role, Ratcliffe will be instrumental in deciding whether or not to declassify documents kept secret since the Mueller days. His predecessor, Acting DNI Richard Grenell, declassified a list of former Obama administration officials who allegedly requested the “unmasking” of Trump adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, a move that Trump’s supporters believe implicated the highest levels of Obama’s White House in the FBI effort to derail the Trump presidency in 2017.

Ratcliffe’s swift confirmation, depending on who you listen to, can either be seen as a non-partisan effort to replace Grenell and stop the declassifications, or a Republican effort to keep them coming.

Partisan politics aside, Ratcliffe’s role will see him shape the US’ relationship with its most powerful adversaries: Russia and China. Both are defined by the US military as “strategic competitors.” 

A hard line on China

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration has taken a harder diplomatic stance against China. While the US military has for several years prioritized China as an adversary, the intelligence community looks set to follow suit with Ratcliffe’s nomination.

During his confirmation hearing, Ratcliffe told senators that his primary focus as DNI would be investigating the origins of the coronavirus, saying “all roads lead to China.” Though the intelligence community has dismissed rumors that the virus was manufactured in China, President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly argued that the Chinese government was responsible for its creation.

With Ratcliffe’s appointment, the US’ spy agencies could soon change their tune.

During his hearing, Ratcliffe promised to commit more resources to counter “the rising power that is China,” citing the Chinese Belt and Road global infrastructure plan as one of several threats to the US emanating from Beijing.

"I look forward to sitting down with you,” he told senators, explaining how he would ensure that the intelligence community is “dedicated to the rising threat that is China, which I view as our greatest threat actor.”

Toeing the Russiagate line

Russia, in the opinion of several of Ratcliffe’s agencies and his predecessor Dan Coats, interfered in the 2016 election and continues to do so. There is no evidence, beyond Russian trolls purchasing a handful of Facebook ads – some entirely unrelated to the election – that Moscow interfered in the 2016 vote. 

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Nevertheless, condemning “Russian meddling” is almost an entry requirement in Washington, and Ratcliffe carries on that tradition. Grilled by the Senate earlier this month, he said that Russia “continues to sow discord” in the US. However, he was pilloried in the media for refusing to directly state that the Kremlin’s alleged interference in 2016 favored Trump – an unproven claim, but a core tenet of the ‘Russiagate’ narrative in the US.

Ratcliffe will be in charge of the declassification of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s final report on Russian election interference, which will document contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials in 2016. Ratcliffe will likely toe the line in accusing Russia of interference, but given that the Mueller investigation found no evidence of “collusion” in 2016, he will not have to protect Trump from any new revelations when the report is released later this summer.

Within the US, Ratcliffe’s confirmation will no doubt inflame the ongoing battle between Trump and the intelligence community, and between Democrats and Republicans in Washington. However, little will change in terms of Washington’s relations with its adversaries. Ratcliffe’s attitudes to Russia and China are no departure from the status quo of hostility that has steadily ratcheted up since and before Trump’s election.

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