Pompeo Confirmed by Senate to Become U.S. Secretary of State

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(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Senate confirmed CIA Director Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state after weeks of heated debate that was as much about growing discord over the Trump administration’s handling of diplomacy as it was about the nominee himself.

The 57-42 vote came after Pompeo lost the support of many Democrats who backed him last year for CIA chief, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York. Still, GOP backers were joined by seven members of the Democratic caucus, most of them from Republican-leaning states such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.

"Having a patriot of Mike’s immense talent, energy and intellect leading the Department of State will be an incredible asset for our country at this critical time in history," President Donald Trump said in a statement after the vote.

Pompeo, 54, will lead a department that’s reeling after Trump’s dismissal of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., who had no previous government experience and who was often at odds with the president. Top State Department staff members quit over the last year and the administration sought unsuccessfully to significantly cut funding.

Many Democrats questioned whether Pompeo, a conservative hard-liner who came to Washington as a Tea Party congressman, has the temperament for diplomacy, but his personal relationship with Trump proved to be an advantage. Pompeo is more closely allied with Trump than Tillerson and may have more power to sway the president.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee said that at a time of high tension with Iran, Russia, North Korea and other nations, Pompeo’s leadership of the nation’s top spy agency gives him the right background to lead the State Department.

Knowledge About Threats

“I can’t imagine there’s a person in Washington who has more current knowledge about the threats, the people involved in those threats, than the current director of the CIA,” Corker said on the Senate floor.

The panel’s top Democrat, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, echoed the concerns of many Democrats, arguing the Pompeo is more suited for clandestine work than managing delicate international relations. He said Pompeo, like the administration, doesn’t have a strong enough strategy to deal with global hot spots.

“Given the opportunity to outline the strategies he would advocate with the administration to deal with, the challenges of Russia, Iran, North Korea, China or Venezuela, to name a few, he failed to exhibit the depth of knowledge or thoughtfulness about what those strategies would be,” Menendez said.

Other Democrats expressed concern that Pompeo would add to the isolationist tendencies of a president who has indicated he wants to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord and who exited a global pact reached that same year that’s designed to combat climate change.

“In regards to Iran, Mr. Pompeo would isolate us from our European allies,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. “With regards to the Paris climate talks, he would isolate us from the rest of the world."

Closer Than Usual

Pompeo’s confirmation vote was closer than usual for a secretary of state, although Tillerson also had narrow support when he was approved 56-43 last year. Until the Trump administration, close votes for a secretary of state were virtually unheard of, with Colin Powell confirmed on a unanimous voice vote in 2001, and Hillary Clinton and John Kerry clearing by votes of 94-3 and 94-2.

The full Senate vote came just days after surprise support from GOP Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky helped Pompeo escape an embarrassing and unprecedented recommendation against him by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Paul said he got last-minute assurances from Trump that Pompeo believes the war in Iraq was a mistake, prompting the lawmaker to shift his weeks-long plan to oppose the nomination.

The White House has been underscoring Pompeo’s readiness for the job, casting him as an already crucial member of Trump’s foreign-policy circle. That reputation was bolstered by Pompeo’s effective designation as the administration’s point person on North Korea, where he traveled over the Easter weekend to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

Pompeo has said he will start traveling overseas immediately. Foreign ministers of the NATO alliance are meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, and the State Department is working out contingency plans to have him replace Acting Secretary of State John Sullivan on the trip now that he’s cleared the Senate.

Along with continuing to shepherd the diplomatic outreach to North Korea, Pompeo will have a key role in advising Trump about the future of the Iran nuclear deal. In his committee testimony on April 12, Pompeo said he was eager to discuss the accord -- which he called a “critical and time-sensitive topic” -- with allies in Brussels. Trump has until May 12 to decide whether to keep waiving sanctions against Iran and remain in the deal.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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