Political News

Senators Urge Pompeo to Avoid Trump’s ‘Worst Instincts’ at State Department

Posted April 12, 2018 2:54 p.m. EDT
Updated April 12, 2018 3:02 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Senators on Thursday implored Mike Pompeo, the CIA director nominated to be secretary of state, to stabilize the Trump administration’s erratic diplomacy by standing up to Russia and other adversaries and reviving U.S. influence among allies.

Under persistent questioning, Pompeo said he had spoken to Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. But Pompeo refused to describe what he had said, maintaining he was at the hearing to discuss foreign policy.

In a week when President Donald Trump issued a fusillade of tweets about Syria, Russia and China that set a new standard for contradictory and inconsistent policy positions, the hearing kicked off with the question of how Pompeo would manage White House impulses that can have global effects.

“Will you enable President Trump’s worst instincts?” asked Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., chairman of the committee, said that while Trump has sometimes been erratic, “we have also seen that good counsel has led the president to evolve.”

If confirmed, Pompeo would be the Trump administration’s second secretary of state in 14 months. In his opening statement, Pompeo signaled that he planned to harvest a forceful diplomacy.

He said he would take a tough line against Russia and push to improve the Iran nuclear deal through negotiations with European allies so that Trump could be persuaded to preserve it.

And as planning was underway at the White House and Pentagon for a potential missile strike on Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians, Pompeo, a former Army captain, stressed that “war is always the last resort.”

“I would prefer achieving the president’s foreign policy goals with unrelenting diplomacy rather than by sending young men and women to war,” he said.

In one tense back and forth, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., asked a series of pointed questions about Pompeo’s previous denunciations of American Muslim leaders for what he called their “silence” in response to a terrorist attack.

Pompeo replied that he believed Islamic religious leaders had a particular “opportunity” to denounce terrorism by Muslims, rather than a responsibility.

Booker agreed that “silence in the face of injustice lends strength to that injustice.” However, he took issue with “saying certain Americans — I don’t care if it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Muslims that serve on my staff — if they’re in positions of leadership,” they “suddenly have a special obligation.”

The senator then pivoted to ask if Pompeo has denounced anti-Muslim news media personalities that he has appeared with, or whether he stood by comments he made as a congressman that gay sex and same-sex marriage were a “perversion.”

Pompeo said that he still believed same-sex marriage was inappropriate but that he supported gay couples in the government. “My respect for every individual regardless of sexual orientation is the same,” he said.

Flagging morale at the State Department was also front and center. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., noted that Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, had left the department in “a blue funk.”

Pompeo vowed to raise the department’s morale. He diverged from Tillerson’s vision for the nation’s diplomatic corps, telling Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., that he did not foresee any slowing of its mission or reduction in personnel.

In one prominent example, Pompeo suggested he would return some of the U.S. diplomats who were withdrawn from Cuba last year after they were sickened in what some suspect was a covert attack with Havana’s knowledge. Trump has tightened restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.

“Consistent with keeping folks safe, we will build out a team there,” Pompeo told Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., also suggesting he would push for increased agricultural sales in Cuba.

Code Pink protesters interrupted the hearing, denouncing what they said was Pompeo’s support for war.

Two sitting senators and former Sen. Bob Dole, the longtime Republican leader from Kansas, introduced Pompeo to the committee and spoke highly of his credentials to be the United States’ top diplomat and his commitment to the rule of law.

Dole, who also introduced Pompeo during his confirmation hearing last year to be director of the CIA, warmed up the panel, which is far from unanimous in its support to confirm him.

“I can see all you people up there. I can’t see very well, so you look good,” said Dole, 94.

Sen. Richard M. Burr, R-N.C., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, assured his peers that Pompeo is transparent and a “natural fit” for the job.

“I asked Mike to lead the CIA in an ethical, moral and legal manner,” Burr said. “And I’m here to tell you that he did exactly that.”

He asked those on the committee to examine Pompeo’s nomination on the merits alone.

“If there’s ever one where you put politics aside, this is it,” Burr said.

Pompeo caught Trump’s attention with his broadsides on Hillary Clinton during 2015 congressional hearings about the attacks on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four people, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, dead. At the time, Pompeo was a Republican congressman from Wichita, Kansas.

Pompeo has been the director of the CIA over the past year and at least one officer died on his watch.

Pompeo kicked off his remarks to the panel with a reminder to lawmakers that, as a former congressman, he understands the important oversight role of Congress. He pledged to be in regular contact and work well with the committee — something Tillerson was not known for during his brief term.

The senators’ insistence that the State Department be on the same foreign policy page as the president referred back to the relationship between Trump and Tillerson, who often contradicted each other.

On Wednesday, Trump said in a tweet that “much of the bad blood” between the United States and Russia “is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia investigation.” He was referring to the special counsel inquiry into Russia’s 2016 election meddling and possible coordination with some of Trump’s associates.

During Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Jeanne Sheehan, D-N.H., asked Pompeo if he agreed with that description of the root of tensions between Moscow and Washington.

He did not. “The historic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and now Russia is caused by Russian bad behavior,” Pompeo said.