In his first TV interview since President Trump announced his nomination to lead the U.S. intelligence community, Republican Congressman John Ratcliffe pushed back against charges he's not qualified, given the complex nature of threats facing the nation and the emergence of the coronavirus.
"I have been handling national security issues as far back as 2005," Ratcliffe told CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge in an exclusive interview. "I have spent four years at the Justice Department in charge of sensitive matters of national security, anti-terrorism investigations. For the last five years I have been legislating almost exclusively on national security issues."
On the coronavirus, Ratcliffe said China and North Korea can't be trusted to provide accurate data, adding he is confident the U.S. intelligence community has the tools to provide the most complete picture.
"We can't really count on countries like China and North Korea giving us accurate information with respect to the, for instance number of cases and the lethality of those cases. So this is where intelligence community and our intelligence collection discipline — things like human intelligence and signals intelligence and other collection disciplines — are important to get the actual numbers, the actual data that we can get to our infectious disease experts for predictive analysis," Ratcliffe said.
Before he entered Congress in 2015, where he sits on the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, Ratcliffe was a U.S. attorney, and the mayor of Heath, Texas, a town of about 7,000.
Ratcliffe addressed concerns that he has never served in an intelligence agency, arguing that having that experience shouldn't be a prerequisite for the position overseeing the nation's 17 intelligence organizations.
"I have not served in an intelligence agency. I think that bringing a different experience today is really going to be vitally important — all of the experience in the world isn't helpful without judgment, and I think what we have seen is that some of our most experienced intelligence officials have gotten it wrong, like regarding the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," Ratcliffe said. "I hope to bring incredible experience regarding national security and intelligence from all of the different vantage points that I have had into a modern day intelligence community to address all of these threats."
He also rejected suggestions that Mr. Trump values loyalty over experience.
"In my case he is certainly putting experience out front — as I have talked about my experience as a U.S. attorney on national security issues as a legislature almost exclusively in these areas — that was important to him," Ratcliffe said. "What we talked about is my loyalty to the constitution, to the rule of law, and standing up for people being treated fairly under that respect. My selection and nomination has to do with loyalty to the rule of law."
Ratcliffe was originally tapped to be director of national intelligence last summer, but withdrew after allegations he had padded his resume about terrorism prosecutions and a major immigration raid.
Asked if he had embellished his role in an immigration sweep a decade ago, Ratcliffe's reply was "no," and pointed to a Justice Department release about the arrests that quoted him. The release said "more than 280 foreign nationals were arrested." According to the Washington Post, his congressional website had said, "As a U.S. Attorney, I arrested over 300 illegal immigrants on a single day," but only a fraction had been charged by Ratcliffe's office.
On the allegation that he had played up his record as a U.S. attorney, the Texas congressman said: "The allegation was that I never served as U.S. attorney. I was appointed to serve not once but twice."
Asked if errors were made, Ratcliffe said, "Where there have been statements or any inaccurate information on campaign literature or press releases that have gone out of my the office. I've tried to clarify that. And, and move on past that. But again, my experience my background my qualifications my judgment, If people really look closely at it they'll see that I'm more than qualified. "
A passionate defender of the president, Ratcliffe said his very public role during special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation and more recently during Mr. Trump's impeachment will allow people to judge his abilities. Ratcliffe was among the first to flag irregularities in the surveillance of a Trump campaign aide. An independent Justice Department watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, confirmed major errors last December.
"I've had a very public role. People have been able to observe again my temperament, my judgment, my abilities, my talents," Ratcliffe explained. "I've demonstrated that I've been right on some of these most important issues."
Congressional Democrats have labeled Ratcliffe partisan and a conspiracy theorist. The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, called him "an unqualified nominee who should not be confirmed."
"Adam Schiff has a lot invested in a narrative that has proven not to be true. There was no Russian conspiracy," Ratcliffe said. He also predicted the confirmation process would be swift, saying, "I think that I'll have the support of all Republicans at the end of the day."
Congressional sources from both sides of the aisle have predicted his confirmation process will be challenging because of the concerns about his lack of intelligence experience and perceived lack of independence from the president. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which is the committee that will vet Ratcliffe, has eight Republicans and seven Democrats. Aides on both sides say that it's entirely possible that all the Democrats will vote against his confirmation, putting GOP Senator Susan Collins under pressure. She is up for reelection this year.
On election interference, Ratcliffe said that the threat is very real, and that the Russians' success was "far beyond what any of us would have ever hoped and probably far beyond the expectations that Vladimir Putin ever had."
"It's important that our intelligence community, be able to give the president the information that he needs to confront Russia or any other country that will interfere with our elections going forward, and understand that there are consequences for doing that," Ratcliffe said. "It's just a matter of making sure that you coordinate that leadership and give that unvarnished information to the president in a way that compels him to take the action to discourage our adversaries, or allies, from interfering in our elections."
While he is a controversial and polarizing choice, if confirmed Ratcliffe said he wants to strip the politics out of intelligence.
"I think one of the overriding priorities for me is to ensure that our intelligence community becomes entirely apolitical and get past the finger-pointing on both sides of who's to blame with respect to that, and I'm looking forward to being the DNI where people can say 'You know what, he took politics out of it completely, he respected the good work of the warriors and the intelligence community and deliver the unvarnished truth,'" Ratcliffe said.
Asked if he has been given a mandate, Ratcliffe said his priority is to improve "efficiency and its effectiveness" and "to innovate to the current national security threats facing us."