Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo speaks at his Senate confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

Secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo is slogging his way through his confirmation hearing, and so far he has emerged largely unscathed. Pompeo is miles ahead of former secretary of state Rex Tillerson in political sophistication, detailed knowledge of the world and managing his interlocutors. Furthermore, Senate Foreign Relations Committee members have not made the most of their questioning time, instead bloviating and asking off-topic questions. But because Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he will vote against Pompeo, the latter will need Democratic votes if he loses one more Republican. There were a few key moments that may determine whether he gets any Democratic support.

The Mueller probe: Ranking Democrat Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey asked Pompeo about an episode in which President Trump dismissed everyone after a briefing except Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. According to The Post, Coats told others that Trump then asked Coats if he could intervene to protect former national security adviser Michael Flynn from an FBI investigation. Pompeo said he couldn’t remember what happened, was never asked to do anything inappropriate and didn’t want to share his conversations with the president.

There’s obviously a contradiction there: How could Pompeo say he was never asked to do anything improper if he doesn’t remember what happened? The most important aspect of this, however, is that Pompeo revealed he had spoken to special counsel Robert S. Mueller and had “cooperated with multiple investigations.” (Presumably he was referring to both Mueller’s inquiry and the congressional committees’ investigations.) Would Pompeo risk his reputation and his career by covering for Trump, or in other words, withholding information from Mueller? I highly doubt it. Pompeo is a lawyer and knows full well the risks of misleading the FBI or Congress. And that for now is all we are going to learn. The good news is that Coats was present and was likely interviewed by Mueller as well.

Would he quit if Trump fired Mueller?: Pompeo said he would not. At first blush that might seem to be evidence of insufficient ethical spine. But Pompeo made a good case for staying on under such circumstances. Apparently referring to Watergate, he said that in tumultuous times, secretaries of state have “stayed the course, continued to do their work” to ensure stability in foreign affairs. A better question would have been whether he would quit if Trump authorized an unjustified first strike or asked him to do something illegal.

Human rights and the rule of law: Pompeo clearly prepared for this arena, one in which Tillerson repeatedly faltered. Pompeo told Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that the United States particularly and the West more generally are engaged in a struggle with authoritarian regimes, and he told Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) that adherence to the rule of law is a critical element of U.S. leadership, sharing a story in which a foreign leader commended the CIA on its adherence to professionalism and the rule of law. He noted that he spoke about the rule of law in probably all of his five or six public speeches as CIA director. It was a convincing, encouraging answer. The big problem here though is Trump’s lack of adherence to democratic norms and his embrace of international thugs. Would Pompeo caution against fawning over dictators? Would he have agreed with the “DO NOT CONGRATULATE” advice Trump ignored in his conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin after the latter’s tainted reelection?

Wars. Pompeo plainly understands that in his new job he would be the chief diplomat, not a TV commentator or military commander. In that sense, war would be an indication of failure. In that vein, he promised to seek European agreement on measures that would keep the United States in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached with Iran. (Although he left little doubt Trump would exit without an agreement with the Europeans, he also said the United States was prepared to keep negotiating past the May 12 deadline, suggesting Trump might delay re-implementation of sanctions.)

Pompeo likewise conceded that war with North Korea could be “catastrophic.” He offered, “There may come the day when we see an arsenal of nuclear weapons, capable of striking the United States of America. The president has made clear his intention to prevent that from happening, and to the extent that diplomatic tools and other tools that America has as its foreign policy power are unsuccessful, I know that Secretary Mattis has been directed to present to the president a set of options that will achieve the president’s objective.”

Whether he would agree to start a war only if there were evidence that an attack was imminent was left vague. That’s probably the best senators are going to get from Pompeo. Regardless, Pompeo is not the problem. The real concern is that Trump, goaded by national security adviser John Bolton, would be too hasty in pulling the trigger. If Congress is really concerned about that, it needs to speak with one voice to make clear such action would qualify as a declaration of war, requiring a congressional vote.

Democrats will understandably be reluctant to give Trump any help in conducting a foreign policy they consider erratic and dangerous. However, nixing Pompeo may mean the next nominee would be even less qualified and able. Sometimes the nominee you know is better than the nominee you don’t.