One of the biggest questions hanging over Mike Pompeo's nomination as secretary of state is whether he's too willing to do President Trump's bidding.

An answer he gave at Thursday's confirmation hearing won't do anything to temper those suspicions.

Pompeo was asked about a March 2017 briefing after which Trump asked everyone except Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to leave the room. According to The Washington Post's reporting, Coats later told associates that Trump had, in that smaller group, asked him to intervene with then-FBI Director James B. Comey to get him to back off investigating former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn. Trump also generally fumed about the Russia investigation, which Comey had confirmed just two days prior.

So, with Pompeo under oath, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) sought clarity on the episode. He asked Pompeo whether Trump had made such a request. And Pompeo offered three distinct responses:

  • “I’m not going to talk about the conversations with the president that I had.”
  • “I don’t recall what he asked me that day, precisely.”
  • “He has never asked me to do anything that I consider remotely improper.”

As CNN's Jim Sciutto notes, those statements are somewhat contradictory. If you don't remember what Trump asked, how do you know it wasn't improper?

Pompeo would probably argue that he would have remembered it if it were an improper request. But he didn't say that he didn't “recall” anything improper; he said Trump “never asked me to do anything that I consider remotely improper.” (When the subject came up again, Pompeo did say he would remember if he was asked to do anything improper.)

But even if we're over-parsing things here, the evasiveness is notable and a little difficult to swallow. If you're not going to talk about the conversation, why say you don't recall something about it? And if you don't recall something about it, why also deny something specific?

It seemed as though Pompeo was looking for a way to absolve Trump, and he offered three of them at the same time without squaring them with one another.

The “I don't recall” response is also somewhat difficult to swallow. This was during a key juncture in the Russia investigation, right after Comey publicly acknowledged the inquiry. And it was a very intimate meeting with Coats and Pompeo that Trump reportedly requested. If Trump asked Pompeo and/or Coats to intervene with Comey, that would sure seem to be something they would remember plenty about.

In the end, Pompeo doesn't deny that Trump asked him to intervene, but he does deny that he was asked to do anything improper. Could it be that Trump did ask him to intervene but that Pompeo didn't think intervening would have been improper? We just don't know.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said in his opening statement Thursday that he wanted to make sure Pompeo's relationship with Trump wasn't “based on a deferential willingness to go along to get along.” It's possible that Pompeo simply stumbled. But the disparate answers mean this issue — along with Pompeo's more general deference toward Trump — probably deserves some clarity.