Pompeo on Spot to Define Trump Strategy in Confirmation Hearing

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(Bloomberg) -- Mike Pompeo, the CIA director and secretary of state nominee, will be pressed to define the Trump administration’s foreign policy strategy during one of the most turbulent periods of international relations in the president’s tenure.

At his Senate confirmation hearing on Thursday, Pompeo is likely to be questioned about potential retaliation against Syria over an alleged chemical attack, the administration’s plans to impose tariffs on imports and a planned meeting with North Korea’s leader after months of heightened tensions over nuclear testing. Lawmakers also are likely to ask about deteriorating relations with Russia and whether the administration will pull out of the nuclear pact with Iran.

Senators want to know whether the White House is shifting strategies with President Donald Trump’s nomination of Pompeo and his appointment of John Bolton as national security adviser, both of whom share more hawkish views than their predecessors. Pompeo, 54, a former House member from Kansas, will also face questions on whether policy will be made in a deliberative process or based on the president’s impulses.

That concern is likely to be bolstered by Trump’s tweet on Wednesday warning that Russia should “get ready” for “nice and new and ‘smart”’ missiles that will be fired at Syria.

Pompeo-Bolton Combo

“A lot of us are worried about the combination of Pompeo and Bolton putting a set of military options on the table for the president,” Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Tuesday. “It could do real damage to our national security.”

Democrats say Pompeo can expect a tough confirmation fight, even though he already went through the process to become Central Intelligence Agency director with bipartisan support and will be accorded more courtesy than a typical nominee became he’s a former congressman.

He’ll 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 Trump’s pick even before Trump formally nominated Pompeo. Paul cited what he said is Pompeo’s past support for waterboarding and other forms of torture.

Without Democratic support, the administration could face an unprecedented scenario where a secretary of state nominee can’t clear committee and Republican leaders would have to decide whether to take the matter straight to the Senate floor for a vote. With GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona absent for brain cancer treatments, Republicans have 50 votes compared with the Democrats’ 49.

Backed for CIA

Fifteen Senate Democrats backed Pompeo to be CIA chief, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and two members of the Foreign Relations Committee that will consider his nomination for secretary of state: Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Tim Kaine of Virginia.

But Shaheen said “this is a very different job” and “I’m going to have some policy questions for him” about issues including Iran, Syria and North Korea.

At the hearing, lawmakers will seek to gauge Trump’s current thinking on the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. Pompeo has spoken against the agreement, while his predecessor, former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive Rex Tillerson, worked to keep Trump from abandoning it. With Tillerson and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster fired, there are few left to argue that Trump should continue to abide by the accord between Iran and six world powers.

On North Korea, Pompeo has hinted in the past that he supported regime change in the country, again a contrast with Tillerson’s assurances that wasn’t a U.S. goal. That could sour relations with leader Kim Jong Un as Pompeo takes over preparations for a meeting in coming weeks between Kim and Trump.

Tillerson was criticized for his management of the State Department. A Washington outsider, he quickly gained a reputation for ignoring the advice of career diplomats and instead running decision-making through his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and his policy planning chief, Brian Hook.

Seeking Advice

Pompeo already has sought advice on the job from past secretaries of state. That includes Hillary Clinton, whose leadership at the department he once called “morally reprehensible” over the 2012 deaths of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans in an attack on a diplomatic outpost in Benghazi.

Clinton emphasized the need to retain career diplomats, according to a person familiar with the conversation who asked not to be identified discussing a private call. Another person said Pompeo also spoke with John Kerry, Clinton’s successor.

One of Pompeo’s first tasks would be to fill jobs left vacant during Tillerson’s tenure. The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition estimates that only two of seven under secretaries and 14 of 22 assistant secretaries have been nominated or confirmed as of March 23. There are 37 ambassador jobs without nominations in countries including Turkey and South Korea.

Those gaps, as well as Tillerson’s firing, have contributed to a freeze in decision-making at the State Department, where acting assistant secretaries don’t feel empowered to make decisions and subordinates don’t have anyone to approve their work.

“Unlike Tillerson, he seems to understand how to work within the bureaucracy and how to take advantage of the bureaucracy that works for him,” Dennis Ross, a former negotiator on Middle East peace talks who served three presidents, said of Pompeo.

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the committee’s Republican chairman, said Pompeo’s established good relationship with Trump is an important advantage.

“Tillerson didn’t know the president,” Corker said. “He was asked out of the blue, and he certainly had no idea what type of policies they were going to carry out. This one knows the president very very well, and he’s been involved in policy decisions.”

Russian Sanctions

Pompeo could benefit from the Trump administration’s recent rounds of sanctions against Russian oligarchs and entities. Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on Foreign Relations, said in the days after Tillerson’s March dismissal that the lack of action on Russia sanctions that Congress approved in August would be the top issue during Pompeo’s confirmation hearing.

Congressional elections in November also may work in Pompeo’s favor. Ten Democrats from states Trump won in 2016 are on the ballot and have some incentive to demonstrate their willingness to back Trump nominees. They include Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota -- all of whom have voted in favor of some of the president’s top nominees.

Schumer said last month that he has no plans to urge Democrats to vote against Pompeo, even as he added that Pompeo’s confirmation process will be a referendum on the administration’s policy toward Russia. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has called Pompeo “perfectly well-qualified,” a sentiment echoed by many Republicans.

“I believe he is eminently qualified and I believe the American people will see that,” said Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican and member of the Foreign Relations panel. He said Pompeo is “absolutely the right person for the job.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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