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Nominees for secretary of state and CIA director face probable backlash in Senate

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)
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The confirmation of President Trump’s picks for secretary of state and CIA director is likely to be hampered but not stymied by a mostly partisan backlash to their past statements and actions, and to the decision that led to their nominations — the termination of Rex Tillerson for being one of the few Cabinet members, Democrats argued Tuesday, who was willing to stand up to the president on foreign policy.

Leaders of both parties predicted it could take a while to confirm CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the new secretary of state and Gina Haspel as Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA, leaving the State Department officially rudderless at a time when the administration faces pressing challenges surrounding newly announced talks with North Korea, looming deadlines for continued compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, Russian aggression in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, the rollout of new tariffs and a deteriorating situation in Syria.

“It’ll obviously take some time and effort,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “I’m confident we’ll get them confirmed, but when there’s so much of a backlog on nominations already, it just adds two other high-profile nominations to our workload.”

Trump ousts Tillerson, will replace him as secretary of state with CIA chief Pompeo

Senate Democrats excoriated Trump, accusing him of further confusing the White House’s often controversial and shifting diplomatic stance. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Trump “a commander in chaos,” and some of Tillerson’s harshest Democratic critics rushed to defend him.

“It is another sign that the Trump administration does not tolerate independent voices,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), a senior senator and former ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I had my differences with Mr. Tillerson . . . but it is a concern to see this type of a change and for the apparent reason that Mr. Trump demands total loyalty.”

The widespread criticism from Democrats ensures that GOP leaders will have difficulty confirming Pompeo and Haspel expeditiously. But the backlash is not expected to upset their eventual chances of confirmation — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that at this point he has no plans to ask Democrats to oppose their nominations.

The Senate approved Pompeo last year with the support of 14 Democrats — some of whom sounded bullish about the chances they would vote for Pompeo again.

“Every time he’s come in before the [intelligence] committee, he’s been well received, he’s been forthright, answered all the questions,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “I always think he was well received.”

But not all Democrats who backed Pompeo once were willing to commit to doing so again.

“I think there are a number of us who voted for him last time who are actively reconsidering based on his service in the administration,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “A lot of us gave him the benefit of the doubt. We were told he was going to handle everything on the level and be nonpolitical. And it’s not clear that that’s his record at the CIA.”

Republicans and Democrats also sounded warnings that Haspel would have to answer for the time she spent in charge of a CIA “black site” prison and for her efforts to destroy videotapes depicting detainees being subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have been condemned as torture.

Haspel, Trump’s pick for CIA, tied to use of brutal interrogation measures

“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

But Haspel’s record is unlikely to destroy her chances of confirmation. Though some Democratic senators, such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said Haspel’s past makes her “unsuitable to serve as CIA director,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), author of the report that exposed the extent of the CIA’s interrogation programs, appeared to defend her.

“She has been, I believe, a good deputy director,” Feinstein said, stressing that the interrogation techniques employed on Haspel’s watch were not, at the time, explicitly illegal. “Fortunately the law, thanks to Senator McCain, has been changed, and torture is now illegal in the United States,” Feinstein said. “That’s with specificity, and I think that’s important. So it’s a different day.”

The White House’s announcement caught many on the Hill by surprise. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said that while he spoke with Trump and Tillerson late last week and was “aware” of their turbulent relationship, he thought “there was a reprieve” over the past several months. The president called Corker at 9:58 a.m. Tuesday — more than an hour after tweeting an announcement about the nominations.

Trump said reported clashes with Tillerson were ‘fake news.’ Then he said: You’re fired.

Trump “let me know how highly he thought of Pompeo,” said Corker, who could not recall having ever met the current CIA director but added that he had “heard good things.” The two are expected to meet on Capitol Hill later this week, and Pompeo’s confirmation hearing is expected to be held in April. A hearing the committee was scheduled to have with Tillerson on Thursday to plan the State Department budget has been canceled.

Corker was close with Tillerson and last year said that Tillerson was one of only three Cabinet members that “separate our country from chaos.” Corker has also indicated in the past that he thinks the Senate cannot approve a secretary of state who will simply be a yes man for Trump. When asked whether Pompeo would be more willing to tell Trump what he wanted to hear than Tillerson was, Corker said, “I don’t know.”

Other Republican senators said they thought Pompeo’s closeness to Trump would be an asset. “One of the most important jobs for the secretary of state is to make clear to the world the president’s policies and priorities,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who said he “cannot think of a better choice” than Pompeo for the role. “No one has a stronger relationship with President Trump than Mike Pompeo. This relationship will empower him throughout his tenure as secretary of state.”

From Jan. 2017: Trump’s pick for CIA says he would refuse to restart enhanced interrogation techniques

Pompeo promised during his confirmation hearing for the job of CIA director to “speak truth to power” with Trump. But he has come under fire in the year since for various actions that seemed to spin facts in the president’s favor, such as falsely claiming that the intelligence community conclusively determined that Russian interference “did not affect the outcome of the election.”

Pompeo’s hard-line positions on Iran are also more in lockstep with Trump’s — a consideration for defenders of the multilateral nuclear deal with Tehran, who need Trump to waive certain sanctions again on May 12 if it is to remain intact. In January, Trump agreed to waive sanctions one last time, and only as an ultimatum for making changes to the law in Congress — changes lawmakers say they cannot make until the White House comes to an agreement with European nations about the changes they will accept.

Tillerson vs. Pompeo: Two very different views of North Korea

It is not clear whether Pompeo will be confirmed into office before that deadline, or before Trump potentially holds a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which South Korean officials announced at the White House last week would take place by the end of May.

Senate Democrats acknowledged those deadlines Tuesday but said they could not be pressured into rushing Pompeo’s nomination.

“We’re going to have to have some in-depth confirmation hearings,” Menendez said. “There’s a difference between being the CIA director and being the secretary of state.”

Ed O’Keefe and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

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