Later today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to reject Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be secretary of state, since every Democrat on the committee is opposed to Pompeo, as is Republican Rand Paul (Ky.). That doesn’t mean his nomination is dead — Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) will still bring the nomination to the floor, and with Democrat Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) having announced her support, Pompeo is likely to squeak through.
But this raises an important question, particularly in the context of the clown show that is President Trump’s Cabinet: On what grounds should the Senate reject Cabinet nominees? Or to put it another way, how bad does a nominee have to be before senators say no?
What most people will say is that, as a general matter, the president should get to pick the people who work for him — to a point. But there are a few reasons a nominee for a Cabinet post might be disqualified. He or she might lack the appropriate qualifications for the job, might be personally compromised or professionally corrupt, or might have specific beliefs so abhorrent that one could not assent to the nomination.
In the Trump Cabinet, there are people who should have been rejected on some or all of those grounds. Unqualified? Ben Carson had zero experience in housing policy. Rick Perry thought the secretary of energy’s job was to be “a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry.” Betsy DeVos made clear she knew almost nothing about education. Corrupt? Once you read about Scott Pruitt’s record in Oklahoma, his actions in Washington make more sense. Disqualifying beliefs? Pruitt is plainly opposed to the very idea of environmental protection, and DeVos has devoted much of her life to the destruction of public education in America.
Trump and his supporters cry that Democrats are just obstructing for the sake of obstructing. This morning, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of the Pompeo nomination, “at some point, Democrats have to decide whether they love this country more than they hate this president.” But the support Democrats have given to Trump nominees has varied widely. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was confirmed on a 98-1 vote, and Elaine Chao was confirmed as transportation secretary, 93-6. A Democratic president might not have nominated those two, but Democrats went along with their nominations anyway. The nominees that had more trouble clearly failed on one or more of the above criteria: DeVos got no Democratic votes, and Pruitt got only two.
Which brings us to Pompeo. Is he qualified? Sure. He’s a smart guy (first in his class at West Point; went to Harvard Law) was a member of Congress and is now director of the CIA, where he deals with plenty of foreign-policy issues. There is no indication that he is corrupt.
The question is how his beliefs would affect the job he would do as the United States’s chief diplomat.
Not all of those beliefs are equally problematic. Pompeo holds some seriously antigay views, which many people will find despicable. That perspective could matter to a degree in his position as secretary of state, but it would probably make less of a difference to the daily formulation and implementation of American foreign policy as would his views on Islam and Muslims.
And those views are a really big problem.
Pompeo has promoted and validated a deeply troubling anti-Islam movement that characterizes Muslims as a threat to America and their faith as inherently violent. For instance, the would-be secretary of state has appeared on the radio show of Frank Gaffney, who heads the anti-Islam Center for Security Policy and spreads bigoted conspiracy theories about “creeping Sharia,” telling Gaffney’s audiences the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the U.S. government as part of its plans for a worldwide takeover. Pompeo has also spoken before the anti-Muslim group ACT for America and has accepted an award from it. The group’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, has said that a practicing Muslim “cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America.”
While Pompeo’s own statements on Islam and Muslims may not go to quite the lengths of lunacy that those of Gaffney and Gabriel do, the fact he has helped them promote their rancid beliefs says a great deal about him. And American Muslims know Pompeo views them with an inherent suspicion. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Pompeo falsely accused American Muslim leaders of not speaking out against the bombing (they had, within hours), saying their “silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts, and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”
In 2016, Pompeo told an audience “this threat to America is from people who deeply believe that Islam is the way and the light and the only answer.” While they may be a minority of Muslims, he said, they “will continue to press against us until we make sure that we pray and stand and fight, and make sure that we know that Jesus Christ as our savior is truly the only solution for our world.”
There may be no more damaging idea to American foreign-policy interests than the notion we are in the midst of a civilizational struggle between Islam and the Christian West. It is exactly what al-Qaeda believes, what the Islamic State believes — and what the next major terrorist group will believe. It feeds their propaganda and their recruitment. It is incredibly problematic to have high-ranking American officials repeat it, and you can bet leaders around the world, particularly in Muslim-majority countries, are well aware that Pompeo has said these things.
You might counter that Trump is an obvious anti-Muslim bigot, so it would only reflect his views and agenda to have Pompeo as his chief diplomat, or that Trump could have nominated someone far worse. Which may be true. But it still leaves us with more than ample grounds for senators to reject Mike Pompeo’s nomination.