CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s trip to North Korea over the Easter weekend was shrouded in secrecy and blessed by the White House. But one thing it was not: a diplomatic mission.
Although he had been tapped weeks earlier as the next secretary of state, Pompeo sat down with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in his role as a spy agency chief and a key adviser to President Trump, people familiar with the meeting said. He did not broker any agreements, and the encounter was not the formal beginning of negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program, these people said.
But Pompeo did help set the table for those negotiations to commence, when Kim and Trump meet in a yet-to-be-determined location. On Wednesday, Trump told reporters that the meeting would take place “in the coming weeks” and that “hopefully that meeting will be a great success.”
Earlier Wednesday, Trump praised Pompeo for breaking the ice between the two countries, noting that the CIA director “got along with [Kim] really well, really great.” Pompeo returned to Washington with enough assurance that North Korea was prepared to negotiate over the future of its nuclear weapons program that the White House decided summit talks were worthwhile, according to the people familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
Pompeo had already been in contact with North Korean officials, but through intelligence channels with his counterparts in the country’s main intelligence agency, administration officials said. In that respect, his interactions with Kim were an extension of the work he was already doing.
But the meeting was also historic and potentially valuable. No CIA director is publicly known to have ever met with North Korea’s leader and had the chance to engage him in conversation.
Pompeo’s agency has spent years trying to discern the motivations and intentions of the Kim dynasty. Although intelligence officials have long regarded North Korea as one of the most opaque regimes in the world, a CIA analyst recently said that the agency judges Kim to be a “rational actor,” and despite provocative tests of nuclear weapons, the young dictator’s main concern is staying in power and not provoking a U.S. attack.
Pompeo’s critics offered grudging praise for the Easter weekend meeting.
“I’m glad that there’s some preparatory work happening for this potential summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. “I’m very worried that this summit is going to go very badly . . . but I think we should all admit that it’s good, not bad, that the Trump administration is trying to do some work ahead of this meeting, perhaps setting the stage for success rather than failure.”
News of Pompeo’s trip didn’t change the minds of some Democratic senators who pledged to oppose his nomination to be secretary of state. In stating his case against Pompeo, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) called Pompeo’s policy record “alarming,” while Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said Pompeo’s views on Iran will “make America less secure.”
None of the 14 Democrats who supported Pompeo to be CIA director have yet backed him to be secretary of state. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) told reporters Wednesday he believed that Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) would support Pompeo.
His chances of getting a favorable recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are in serious jeopardy, however, as several Democrats on that panel, plus GOP Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) have opposed his nomination. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), acknowledged that while a denuclearized North Korea was a noble goal, the planned meeting between Trump and Kim “is not a strategy” — and he announced that he would not vote to confirm Pompeo.
But Pompeo’s supporters say his display of diplomacy in North Korea should persuade some undecided Democrats to vote for him.
“For years, we have kept back channels to North Korea through intelligence. . . . It’s perfectly natural, then, that he would be the person to have the first meeting and sit-down,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday at a media breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. He added that he did not believe the North Korea trip would hurt Pompeo’s chances at confirmation and said that many Democrats were objecting to his confirmation simply as a proxy for opposing Trump.
The White House and its allies have launched a full-court press to push Democrats to vote for Pompeo — and said the North Korea visit shows that the concerns naysayers have raised are invalid.
Cotton said Wednesday that Pompeo’s meeting with Kim was the “best evidence imaginable that he is committed to diplomacy.”
Cotton also offered a political threat to Democrats who might choose to oppose Pompeo, warning that those up for reelection in 2018 who oppose his bid “may suffer the consequences.”
If Senate Foreign Relations Committee Democrats and Paul oppose Pompeo’s nomination as expected, Corker can still send the nomination to the full Senate for a vote with an unfavorable recommendation. Pompeo probably needs at least one Democrat to back his nomination to be confirmed because Paul has declared his opposition, and Sen. John McCain (R) is back home in Arizona, receiving treatment for a rare and serious form of brain cancer.
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.