In a normal environment, CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s controversial record would mean a long and contentious Senate confirmation process. But the sheer urgency of the moment is pushing all sides to realize that the State Department needs a leader, and that Pompeo, though imperfect, needs to get started as soon as possible.
Pompeo’s Thursday hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee comes faster than Democrats wanted. Most Democrats refused to meet him until this week, insisting he complete his paperwork first. But over the past three days, more than a dozen have sat down with him, realizing the confirmation train was leaving the station with or without them.
Democrats know his confirmation is their rare opportunity to press the White House for answers about President’s Trumps foreign-policy actions. They naturally want to maximize this rare moment of leverage.
But even they acknowledge that with several world crises brewing and the State Department rudderless, there is huge pressure to get Pompeo confirmed and in place quickly.
“We have critical positions throughout the world that need to be filled, so yes, there is an urgency here,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.). “But Congress gets one shot at this.”
Senate Democrats have real policy and political differences with Pompeo on North Korea, climate change, privacy, torture, Benghazi and much more. Those differences won’t get resolved at Thursday’s hearing, but they will press Pompeo on two separate areas: his commitment to make the State Department and diplomacy relevant again, and his willingness to speak truth to Trump.
Unlike the previous secretary Rex Tillerson, Pompeo is an experienced politician who comes into his hearing with the skills and preparation to handle whatever comes at him. But he will still have to tread carefully when talking about his boss.
“I don’t hold him responsible for the president’s views,” Cardin said. “But can he stand up to the president when he disagrees with the president?”
During his meetings, Pompeo has been assuring senators he supports robust funding for diplomacy, intends to utilize State Department expertise, and has plans to quickly fill dozens of vacant diplomatic posts all over the world. At his hearing, Pompeo will publicly reaffirm that he wants to strengthen the State Department and advocate for its employees as well as its mission, according to a person familiar with his preparations.
As I reported before his nomination, Pompeo has been preparing for the job for months, meeting with experts and thinking through staffing and organizational decisions. As Politico reported on Tuesday, Pompeo has recently tapped the expertise of his predecessors at State — including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.
Democrats will use the hearing to pry into White House events and decisions Pompeo was present for. But Pompeo won’t give much away on that front. He will affirm that he is willing to tell Trump things the president doesn’t want to hear, but he won’t reveal details of their private discussions.
Pompeo will be pressed to disavow Act for America, an anti-Muslim group that claims to have his support. He prefers to fix the Iran nuclear deal, but if that fails, he is fine with nixing it. Regarding potential strikes in Syria, Pompeo believes congressional authorization would be helpful, but that Trump has the authority to strike without it.
Sometime soon after the hearing, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, will call for a committee vote. Corker told me he is not advising other Republicans on how to vote, and hasn’t made up his own mind on Pompeo. Ranking Democrat Robert Menendez (N.J.) is expected to vote against the nomination along with most of the other Democrats on the committee.
If Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) joins all Democrats in opposing the nomination, Pompeo will become the first secretary of state nominee to not earn committee approval. But Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can easily bring the nomination to the Senate floor anyway, where Pompeo is expected to get a least a few Democratic votes to easily clear the 50-vote threshold.
Democrats know their leverage is limited. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me that, at a minimum, Pompeo should be pressed for promises on how he will run the State Department, as well as deal with other hawks among Trump’s national security team — especially new national security adviser John Bolton.
“People are viewing the entire national security cabinet. Maybe that’s not entirely fair to Pompeo,” said Murphy. “But I don’t think there’s any way around the fact that you need to be thinking about who’s going to balance Bolton now that he’s firmly ensconced.”
Republicans argue there are too many crucial matters coming to a head to keep the position vacant any longer. The president may withdraw from the Iran deal May 12; Trump is planning to have a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in late May or early June; the U.S. Embassy in Israel formally moves to Jerusalem in May. And this morning, Trump tweeted that he is about to strike the Bashar al-Assad regime in response to its latest chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians.
“If you believe that diplomacy matters as a tool of national security, then we need to have a secretary of state,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “If you take diplomacy and the State Department off the table, you better buy more bombs.”