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Pompeo grilled about his closeness to Trump at confirmation hearing

At the April 12 confirmation hearing for secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked about a 2017 briefing with the president. (Video: Reuters)

Secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo promised Thursday to restore the State Department to the center of U.S. foreign policy, work to stiffen sanctions against Russia and promote democratic values abroad. But his critics appeared unconvinced that as the nation’s top diplomat, he would stand up to President Trump.

Senators pounded Pompeo with sharply worded questions for almost five hours, asking for his views on North Korea, Syria, Iran and other international hot spots. When his answers came off as vague, they pushed back, such as when Pompeo said he would advocate a “fix” to the Iran nuclear deal that Trump has threatened to abandon.

“My sense of his answers is that he won’t challenge the president, that he’ll be someone who will ultimately execute what the president wants, even if he is in disagreement,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said after the hearing. “On every front that I asked him, he just didn’t define what his own advocacy would be for a strategy.”

One area where Pompeo struck a different tone than Trump was Russia. After saying he believes Russia interfered in the 2016 election, he promised to work to curb Moscow’s economic and cyber “adventurism” around the world.

“Each of those tools that Vladimir Putin is using, we need to do our best to make sure he doesn’t succeed,” he said.

Pompeo, who currently serves as CIA director, was asked to reconcile the harsh statements he made years ago about Muslims, gay people and torture with the more moderate opinions he expressed to the committee. He did not renounce his opposition to same-sex marriage but said he has and will continue to treat government employees who are gay or minorities with the same respect he would afford anybody.

Both Republican and Democratic senators asked Pompeo how he would deal with Trump, whose impetuous pronouncements on foreign policy have made it difficult for foreign governments to know whether the secretary of state speaks for the United States.

At the confirmation hearing for Secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo April 12, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said President Trump sometimes speaks "impulsively." (Video: Reuters)

Several senators beseeched him to take advantage of his close relationship with Trump to confront the president when he is wrong.

“It’s fair for our members to ask if your relationship is rooted in a candid, healthy, give-and-take dynamic or whether it’s based on deferential willingness to go along to get along,” said the panel’s chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), as Pompeo’s confirmation hearing got underway.

Several Democratic senators asked Pompeo whether he would resign if Trump were impeached or moved to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating alleged personal and financial ties between the president and Russian officials.

“My instincts tell me my obligation to continue to serve as America’s senior diplomat will be more important in times of domestic political turmoil,” Pompeo said.

After the meeting, Corker said that “based on the personal meetings I had with him, [Pompeo] will lobby strongly for positions,” but he acknowledged that advocacy might not work every time.

“We all understand, once the president makes a decision, that is what’s going to occur,” Corker added.

The first test for Pompeo will likely be the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has threatened to cease cooperating with if the parties cannot agree by May 12 to certain changes to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Pompeo appeared to accept that Trump would no longer extend the sanctions waivers that let the United States hold up its end of the bargain, despite his own view that there is “no evidence that [the Iranians] are not in compliance” with the agreement. He said that Iran was unlikely to acquire nuclear capacity if the pact expires and that “even after May 12, there’s still much diplomatic work to be done.”

That alignment of views stands in sharp contrast with the tense relationship former secretary of state Rex Tillerson had with Trump. Many in the State Department felt they bore the brunt of it, as senior officials left and very few were replaced. Pompeo said he would work to reinvigorate the State Department and get it the resources it needs.

Pompeo told senators that he would consider reversing some of Tillerson’s ascetic budgeting policies. The State Department is the last federal agency with a hiring freeze in place, and Pompeo said he would lift it and begin recruiting more diplomats. He said he would ask for resources where needed, despite a budget that the White House has proposed cutting by 30 percent next year. Some senators admitted being perplexed when Tillerson told them that if Congress had budgeted him another dollar, he wouldn’t know where to spend it.

“I’ll take the extra dollar,” Pompeo told the panel.

Pompeo also offered senators new details about a recent U.S. strike in Syria that killed “a couple hundred Russians” — a figure that U.S. government officials have not previously disclosed. But he declined to give details about pending plans to respond to an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Though Pompeo said the eventual goal is to achieve a “post-Assad Syria,” he said he was categorically opposed to regime change in North Korea — calling planned denuclearization talks the Trump administration’s No. 1 priority.

Pompeo also did not offer the senators fresh hope that the Trump administration might change course on its decision to abandon the Paris agreement on climate change, saying he shared the president’s position “precisely” that the pact put an “undue burden” on the country.

Despite the controversy of some of his positions, Pompeo’s concerted efforts to reach out to former diplomats and secretaries of state in preparation for Thursday’s hearing have helped him build a reservoir of goodwill at the State Department. But it is not clear that they will be enough to convince the committee of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats to back his nomination.

Corker declared Thursday that he would “avidly support” Pompeo’s nomination, but Democrats were far more skeptical, as was Republican panel member Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.), who said the combination of Pompeo and John Bolton as national security adviser would be a combination too hawkish to support.

The committee is expected to meet April 23 to consider Pompeo’s nomination. If he fails to get a majority, his nomination could still be considered by the full Senate, where he is expected to be confirmed before the end of the month.

But as Menendez pointed out, in that case, it would be the first time a secretary of state has started the job without the positive recommendation of the Foreign Relations panel.