The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s would-be secretary of state has an Islamophobia problem

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Mike Pompeo, the CIA director who was tapped by President Trump to lead the State Department, faces a confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday. For the White House, it couldn't come sooner.

It's not an ideal moment for the post of the United States' top diplomat to be vacant: The Trump administration is weighing further military action in Syria, squaring off with Russia and Iran on several fronts, gearing up for a potential trade war with China and considering direct talks with North Korea.

But Pompeo has had to prepare himself for a tough fight. Although Republicans hold a narrow 11-to-10 majority in the committee, he'll probably need a degree of bipartisan support to win the committee's approval. Libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has indicated his probable opposition to Pompeo over his support of the Iraq War, and tolerance of waterboarding and other forms of torture.

Democrats aren't going to be in a forgiving mood, either. They are expected to grill Pompeo on contentious issues Thursday. Those include his defense of practices tantamount to torture; his climate-change denial; his opposition to equal rights for LGBT Americans and State Department programs aimed at promoting gender equality abroad; and his eagerness to scrap the nuclear deal brokered with Iran.

My colleague Josh Rogin wrote that Democrats may seek to press Pompeo on two key fronts: “his commitment to make the State Department and diplomacy relevant again, and his willingness to speak truth to Trump.”

Even if the committee fails to approve Pompeo's nomination, he could still get the job thanks to the geopolitical urgency of the moment. As Rogin reported, his confirmation could, no matter the committee's decision, be brought to the full Senate for a floor vote, where he stands a better chance of winning.

The prospect of Pompeo's ascension to the top rungs of the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus set off alarm bells across Washington. Critics worry that between Pompeo and new national security adviser John Bolton, Trump is assembling a “war cabinet” that will stoke his most volatile and hawkish instincts.

“A lot of us are worried about the combination of Pompeo and Bolton putting a set of military options on the table for the president,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said to reporters Tuesday. “It could do real damage to our national security.”

Republicans called for a quick confirmation to replace outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but Democrats warned of the nominees' "unanswered questions." (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

In addition to Pompeo's potential hawkishness, critics are worried about Pompeo's troubling track record on religion and intimate association with the Islamophobic fringe in America. Of course, in the era of Trump's divisive populism, anti-Muslim voices are closer to the mainstream than probably ever. But Pompeo was an early adopter.

The former tea party congressman from Kansas built up his profile as a right-wing hard-liner. In 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombing, Pompeo took to the House floor and complained that Muslims were allegedly not denouncing terrorism. Numerous American Muslim organizations and leaders had in fact issued statements condemning the bombing, conducted vigils and worked to support victims of the attack. But Pompeo was undeterred.

“Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts,” Pompeo said at the time, a statement that implicitly cast suspicion on a good chunk of America's Muslim population.

In 2014 and 2015, Pompeo spearheaded legislation to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization. That might not seem so outlandish a proposition in 2018: The Islamist party is outlawed in countries such as Egypt and reviled by the monarchies of the Arab Gulf.

But the campaign for this designation in the United States has no support from a wide spectrum of mainstream counterterrorism analysts. It is deeply connected to the efforts of a fringe set of hate groups that see American Muslims as a fifth column bent on subverting the state. One of those organizations, ACT for America, awarded Pompeo its highest honor, the National Security Eagle Award, in 2016. The Anti-Defamation League describes ACT for America as the “largest anti-Muslim group” in the country, one that “stokes irrational fear of Muslims” and “propagates” a “hateful conspiracy theory” of Muslims secretly working to impose sharia law on Americans.

Pompeo also frequently appeared on radio shows with Frank Gaffney, another leading Islamophobe who spuriously accused various Democrats of clandestine ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. During one 2015 episode featuring Pompeo, Gaffney went on a rant about President Barack Obama, suggesting he had an “affinity” for Islamist militants.

Pompeo agreed. “Frank, every place you stare at the president’s policies and statements, you see what you just described,” he said.

Pompeo will probably have to disavow this track record of extremist and, frankly, unhinged rhetoric. This week, the CIA, on behalf of its director, told the New York Times that Pompeo “has worked extensively and successfully to expand CIA’s partnerships with countries throughout the Muslim world.”

Pompeo has embarked on a diligent listening tour, gauging the concerns of his colleagues and even reaching out to moderate Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, whom he once deemed “morally reprehensible.”

But critics say that Pompeo's rise to the top is part of a dangerous phenomenon: the normalization of anti-Muslim sentiment in the Republican Party. An investigation published this week by BuzzFeed News found dozens of examples of state and local Republican politicians in virtually every U.S. state attacking Islam.

“It has become an acceptable plank within the Republican Party to demonize Muslims,” Robert McCaw, the government affairs director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy group and a frequent target of right-wing attacks, told BuzzFeed. “Policymakers take ideas and turn them into action. That can endanger communities like American Muslims if Islamophobic sentiment is turned into law.”

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