WASHINGTON — Once slated to be President Donald Trump’s director of national intelligence, Rep. John Ratcliffe has emerged as a leading, sharply partisan voice for Republicans during the public impeachment proceedings, a role he’s expected to continue as eight witnesses testify this week.
Ratcliffe, a third-term Texas Republican, told McClatchy on Friday that he consults with his GOP colleagues on the committee about strategic questioning, but mostly writes his own questions for the public hearings.
“I prepare my own questions based on things that I read in the deposition, questions maybe I previously asked and I think most members are doing that,” he said Friday.
All of the witnesses slated to testify in public hearings this week have previously sat for closed-door depositions in front of the Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees in their impeachment investigation.
Testifying Tuesday are Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the director for European Affairs for the National Security Council, and Tim Morrison, former top NSC Russia and Europe adviser.
Also slated to appear this week are Fiona Hill, a former NSC Russia and Europe expert; Jennifer Williams, a former adviser to Vice President Mike Pence on Europe and Russia; former NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and others.
It’s likely that Radcliffe will question Morrison and Vindman about concerns Vindman reported to the NSC lead legal counsel regarding a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The complaint violated the NSC chain of command, where Vindman should have gone to Morrison with his concerns. Ratcliffe questioned Morrison about this during his deposition.
The hearings, though, have a broader theme. On Thursday, for the first time, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi alleged that Trump tried to commit bribery in his dealings with Ukrainian officials, which is an impeachable offense listed in the. Constitution.
Ratcliffe fired back. “Just today for the first time, we’re told that the impeachment inquiry is based on bribery, before that it was extortion, before that it was a quid pro quo, so the goalposts are constantly changing,” he said Friday. “I’ll tailor my questions to address what Nancy Pelosi or (Intelligence Committee Chairman) Adam Schiff decides today or this weekend is the next thing the president has allegedly done wrong.”
Ratcliffe is leaning on his experience as an attorney, including serving as the interim U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas from May 2007 to April 2008, to examine the testimony of witnesses in the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s actions in Ukraine.
He was nominated in July to serve as Trump’s director of national intelligence, but withdrew his nomination just five days later amid concerns about his lack of experience in the intelligence community and allegations of embellishing his resume.
The basis for the impeachment inquiry is an allegation by Democrats that Trump withheld congressionally mandated military aid from Ukraine and pressured Zelenskiy to open certain investigations into Trump’s domestic political rivals in exchange for the aid.
Republicans contend that withholding aid is not an impeachable offense, especially because it was released and sent to Ukraine in September, without Ukraine announcing the requested investigations.
Ratcliffe said he mostly works alone to draft questions for witnesses and that he generally only discusses broad arguments against impeachment with his Republican colleagues.
“We do have conversations to talk about what we think are important, but there isn’t like a master list (of questions) for anyone on our side,” Ratcliffe said about the strategy of Republicans on the Intelligence Committee. “It’s not choreographed or scripted.”
All members are given five minutes to question witnesses. At Wednesday’s public hearing, though, Congressman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, yielded all of his questioning time to Ratcliffe. Later, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, yielded his last two minutes of questioning time to Ratcliffe, too.
On Friday, Ratcliffe stepped out of the hearing room in the middle of the session with top committee Republican Devin Nunes of California and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., for a few minutes before Stefanik or Ratcliffe’s questioning time came up. Earlier, Nunes had given some of his questioning time to Stefanik.
“(We discussed) nothing memorable that I remember,” Ratcliffe said about their absence from the hearing room.
“I think we had some discussions about making sure we were trying to get on the record certain things that the Democrats don’t want us to,” he added.
Ratcliffe’s constituents in Texas’ 4th District, which stretches from near Dallas to the northeast corner of the state, which Trump won by 53.2 points in 2016, probably support Ratcliffe’s tough messaging in the impeachment inquiry so far, Sean Theriault, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said in an email.
“His constituency loves the role that he’s playing,” Theriault wrote.
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PHOTO (for help with images, contact 312-222-4194): John Ratcliffe