(Bloomberg) -- Senators pressed Mike Pompeo to avoid becoming a “yes man” for President Donald Trump’s foreign-policy impulses if he’s confirmed as secretary of state, in a hearing where the CIA director walked back past comments about Iran and North Korea that critics say proved him a hard-liner.
With the U.S. threatening a military strike in Syria, engaged in high-risk diplomacy with North Korea and weighing whether to quit the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo found himself in an occasionally contentious back-and-forth Thursday with Democratic senators -- and the occasional Republican -- who sought assurances that if confirmed he’d try to rein in what they described as Trump’s erratic decision-making.
The committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Bob Corker, said he wanted to know whether Pompeo’s relationship with Trump “is rooted in a candid, healthy, give-and-take and dynamic or whether it’s based on deferential willingness to go along to get along.” New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the panel’s top Democrat, asked, “Will you stand up to President Trump and advise him differently when he’s wrong, or will you be a ‘yes man?”’
Pompeo, 54, directly confronted doubts about his reputation, explicitly rebutting the notion that he’s a hawk or a hard-liner. The former Republican congressman championed diplomacy after senators asked whether Trump was assembling a “War Cabinet” by tapping Pompeo as secretary of state and John Bolton as his national security adviser.
“There’s no one like someone who served in uniform who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war,” said Pompeo, a West Point graduate who was a cavalry officer in the first Gulf War. “It’s the last resort and it must always be so, and I intend to work to achieve the president’s policies with diplomacy rather than by sending our young men and women to war.”
Pompeo will need bipartisan support to clear the panel, which Republicans govern with a narrow 11-10 majority. Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky, a member of the committee, came out against Pompeo even before Trump formally nominated him, and his office said after the hearing that Paul was still a “no.” Paul previously cited what he said was Pompeo’s past support for waterboarding and other forms of torture.
Without Democratic support in Foreign Relations, the administration could face an unprecedented scenario where a secretary of state nominee can’t clear the panel and Republican leaders would have to decide whether to take the matter straight to the Senate floor for a vote. With Senator John McCain of Arizona absent for brain cancer treatments, Republicans have 50 votes compared with the Democrats’ 49.
Democratic senators said they were unconvinced that Pompeo had sufficiently moderated his views from the past on North Korea or Iran. In 2018, he had said of North Korea that he was “hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime” from its nuclear weapons capabilities. In the hearing, he said he didn’t support regime change. On both Iran and North Korea, he said there was a lot of diplomacy left to do before considering military strikes.
Doubts on Diplomacy
“The Pompeo I hear today -- much more different from some of the Pompeo of the past, so I’m trying to figure out which one is going to act if he is confirmed as secretary of state,” Menendez said at the end of the hearing. Later, Menendez said Pompeo didn’t have “the performance that I would have expected.”
Democrat Tim Kaine of Virginia, who voted to confirm Pompeo for CIA director, said he hasn’t made a final decision but believes that for the State Department “we’ve got to have a diplomat. It’s not too much to ask that someone really be a diplomat, and I’m not sure he has the diplomacy orientation I want to see.”
Corker was far more enthusiastic, saying that in the absence of any surprises he would “avidly” support Pompeo’s nomination. He said he hoped for a Senate vote on Pompeo’s nomination during the week of April 23.
“I think that people grow and evolve, I really do, and I think especially with Pompeo, to have the 15 months he’s had as director of the CIA, there’s huge impact from that,” Corker told reporters after the hearing. “My sense is he could well be a great, great secretary of state.”
Pompeo repeatedly had to fend off questions about his role in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and whether the president ever asked him to do anything to interfere with investigations into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Pompeo confirmed he had been interviewed by Mueller but declined to discuss conversations with Trump beyond saying the president “has never asked me to do anything that I consider remotely improper.”
‘Fix’ on Iran
On foreign policy, Pompeo said he’s committed to trying to “fix” the nuclear agreement with Iran and six world powers before and after a May 12 deadline Trump has set. And in contrast to many hard-line opponents of the accord, Pompeo added that he’s seen no evidence that the Islamic Republic was “racing” to build a nuclear weapon before the agreement was reached in 2015, or would do so now if the deal falls apart.
“Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal,” Pompeo said. “There is no indication that I’m aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon today.”
Turning to Russia, Pompeo vowed to advise a tough approach toward President Vladimir Putin over his government’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and its actions from Crimea to Syria. He said the administration has already taken a number of steps to punish Moscow, saying the list of U.S. actions -- including a recent expulsion of 60 diplomats -- “is long.”
“Vladimir Putin has not yet received the message sufficiently and we need to continue to work at that,” Pompeo said.
Tensions with Russia climbed this week after Trump warned on Twitter Wednesday that Moscow should “get ready” for “nice and new and ‘smart”’ missiles that will be fired at Syria. On Thursday morning, Trump tempered his position, saying in a tweet that a strike could come “very soon, or not so soon at all.” The president has threatened retaliation after Syria’s government was accused of attacking a rebel-held town with chemical weapons last weekend.
At the CIA, Pompeo has had a direct role in preparing Trump for a historic meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. That summit, expected in May or early June at a location to be determined, will just be the first step in working to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, Pompeo said.
“It’s my full anticipation that however that meeting goes, there will be an enormous amount of diplomatic work yet remaining,” he said. “There is a long ways to go.”
In a sign of how lawmakers felt Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, undermined morale at the State Department, Pompeo said in his prepared remarks that he would help the department find its “swagger once again.” Pompeo cited his experience at the CIA -- where he regularly hosted discussions with career staff -- as a sign he can rebuild morale and inspire employees at the State Department.
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