In his Senate confirmation hearings Thursday, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the nominee for secretary of state, made a good case that he would fill the State Department’s many vacancies, rebuild morale, and elevate the role of U.S. diplomats. But he did little to dispel concerns that, as a policy adviser, he would kowtow to President Trump rather than stand up for his own views.
Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, raised the issue at the start of the hearing, asking whether Pompeo’s close relationship with Trump is based on candor or simply a “deferential willingness to get along.”
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez, was more blunt, asking, “Will you enable President Trump’s worst instincts? … Will you stand up to President Trump and say ‘No,’ or will you be a yes man?”
At the end of the 4½ hour session, interrupted by only a five-minute recess, Corker expressed himself as on board, saying he would “avidly support” Pompeo’s nomination. Menendez was mixed at best, reciting a series of coarse statements that Pompeo had made as a three-term Kansas congressman—disparaging of Muslim Americans and marriage equality, in favor of regime change through force in Iran—and contrasting them with gentler remarks he’d made at the hearing. Finally, he asked, “Which Mike Pompeo am I being asked to vote for?”
The vote will be close. Ten of the committee’s 11 Republicans are almost certain to vote for his confirmation—the exception being Sen. Rand Paul, who finds him too eager to support military intervention without congressional approval. If all 10 Democrats vote against him, the result will be a tie—meaning Corker will send the vote to the Senate floor without recommendation. If Republican floor managers foresee this happening, they could bypass the committee and send the vote directly to the Senate floor. Some Senate aides, including Democrats, doubt that Pompeo would actually lose a floor vote, but the margin is likely to be unusually tight for confirmation of the Cabinet’s most powerful secretary—the face and voice of America around the world.
Throughout the hearing, Pompeo was less than clear about his views on high-profile issues. Menendez, for instance, asked what his plan was to keep North Korea from building nuclear missiles that can hit the United States and whether he favored withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal unilaterally if the European signatories decided not to push for revising its terms. As with many policy issues, Pompeo skirted the questions when he couldn’t evade them entirely.
In his opening statement, Pompeo promised to consult Congress regularly (noting that he had done so as CIA director) to promote human rights and democracy, to push for more resources if the State Department needs them, to fill the many vacancies, and—in a particularly pointed jab at his reclusive predecessor, Rex Tillerson—never to hide away in his seventh-floor office.
However, he also said that his “job No. 1” would be to serve as the president’s representative, and while that has been the way that most secretaries of state have seen their job, it raised many questions about his agreements or disagreements with Trump.
A few Democrats brought up a Washington Post story from last year, reporting that Trump had complained to Pompeo and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, about then–FBI Director James Comey’s handling of the investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election. According to the Post, Coats decided afterward that it would be inappropriate to interfere with Comey. What, the senators asked Pompeo, did Trump ask him to do, and what did he do about it?
At first, Pompeo replied, “I’m not going to talk about conversations with the president.” Then he said, “The article’s suggestion that he asked me to do anything appropriate is false.” Then he said, “I don’t recall what he asked me that day precisely.”
Some of the Democratic senators, including Menendez, observed that these replies—which Pompeo uttered within a few minutes of one another—were somewhat contradictory. Pompeo did note, however, that he has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller and that, as CIA director, he has cooperated with all three investigations—Mueller’s and the two congressional intelligence committees’—into Russian meddling and administration complicity.
Another Democrat, Sen. Ben Cardin, asked Pompeo about his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has threatened to withdraw from the deal next month unless European leaders—who co-signed the agreement along with President Obama and the Iranians—modify its terms. If the Europeans don’t alter the language, Cardin asked, would it be better to stick with the deal—which, Pompeo admitted, Iran has been observing—or to withdraw unilaterally? Pompeo refused to answer, calling the question “a hypothetical.”
Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, asked Pompeo about his statement, as a congressman in 2014, that a mere 2,000 air sorties would demolish Iran’s nascent nuclear infrastructure. Pompeo maneuvered around the question of whether this implied that he preferred, at the time, launching an attack to signing the Iran deal.
On the brewing tensions over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, Pompeo said, “We have not exhausted our diplomacy.” However, he also said he could imagine scenarios in which it might be wise to launch an attack—or even a ground invasion—on North Korea, even while agreeing with Democratic Sen. Edward Markey that it would be “catastrophic” for the United States to initiate such an attack.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, followed up by raising the question that others were only hinting at. “People are asking,” he said, “Are we assembling a war cabinet?” Especially with John Bolton’s recent appointment as national security adviser, he went on, “People want to know whether your views are close to Bolton’s in his advocacy of force.”
Pompeo replied, “I’ve been part of this Cabinet,” and “every day,” the question “at the forefront of our minds” is how to solve problems without going to war. Given Trump’s most belligerent tweets and Bolton’s long-standing views about war and peace, Merkley seemed unpersuaded.
Finally, Sen. Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, asked about insulting statements that Pompeo has made about Muslim Americans. Notably, after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, Pompeo said that Muslim Americans had a special obligation to denounce terrorist attacks, and that if they didn’t, they could be held “complicit.”
Pompeo replied that “everyone” had an obligation to denounce terrorism, thereby evading the question. He also said his record as CIA director has been “exquisite” in treating Muslims—in the United States and around the world—with equal respect. He replied in similar fashion to the few senators who asked about his past statements denouncing gay sex and same-sex marriage as a “perversion.” He noted that he has treated married gay CIA officers with as much respect as anyone else, though he did note that he has not changed his views about the propriety of same-sex marriage.
Nor did Pompeo allay environmental concerns about his record. Asked about Trump’s pullout from the Paris climate accords, Pompeo said, “I share the president’s position precisely”—namely, that the agreement places “an undue burden” on the United States. He ignored the point, made by Sen. Cardin, that, in fact, the accord allows signatories to impose their own requirements on compliance—which may be one reason why almost every other country on Earth has signed on.
Pompeo did disagree with some of Trump’s positions. Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen quoted a recent tweet in which Trump blamed poor U.S.-Russia relations on fake news and Mueller’s “witch hunt.” Pompeo replied that the tensions are caused by “Russian bad behavior.” Asked whether he agreed with Trump that the FBI’s raid of Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, constituted “an attack on our country,” Pompeo replied, “I believe deeply in the rule of law.” Asked whether the rule of law allows lawful warrants, he replied, “Absolutely.”
Pompeo also disagreed with Trump’s characterization of the American press as an “enemy of the people.” And he said that he would urge Trump to implement the still-unenforced Russian sanctions that Congress passed by a very wide margin. However, he also argued that Trump has been harder on Russia than many claim, noting for instance his recent expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats.
Finally, in contrast to Trump’s hostile attitude toward Obama’s resumption of relations with Cuba, Pompeo seemed eager to expand the two countries’ ties in the post-Castro era, saying he wants to “build out” the U.S. embassy with “the finest” American diplomats.
Still, more often than not, Pompeo aligned himself with Trump’s positions, defending them more as a current Cabinet member than as an aspiring one. His advantage and his problem is that he is both. The advantage is that he has built a trust with Trump, taking great care to do so, even delivering the daily intelligence briefing to him in person. As a result, if he is confirmed as secretary of state, other world leaders will interpret his words as reflecting the president’s thinking. The problem is the dismal quality of the president’s thinking: If Pompeo can’t—or isn’t willing to—elevate and inform that thinking, then, as Menendez asked at the start of the hearing, won’t he simply enable Trump’s worst instincts?
On this point, Pompeo offered scant assurances.
One more thing
You depend on Slate for sharp, distinctive coverage of the latest developments in politics and culture. Now we need to ask for your support.
Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help. If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus