Mike Pompeo Nomination Barrels Ahead Despite Growing Democratic Opposition

Leaked news of his secret trip to North Korea is increasing pressure on holdouts to support him as secretary of state.

WASHINGTON ― CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be the nation’s next secretary of state appears to be on track for confirmation despite growing Democratic opposition this week and a likely unfavorable committee vote in the Senate.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, became the latest member of his caucus to oppose the nomination of Pompeo, who was tapped by President Donald Trump to replace Rex Tillerson at the State Department.

Menendez called Pompeo’s hawkish record “deeply troubling” and chided him for not being fully forthcoming about his involvement in the investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, as well as his recently revealed trip to North Korea to meet with its dictator, Kim Jong Un. Pompeo reportedly made the secret visit to the Korean peninsula over Easter weekend to prepare for direct talks between Trump and Kim, who plan to discuss Pyongyang’s nuclear program. 

“I believe our nation’s top diplomat must be forthright, and, more critically, his past sentiments do not reflect our nation’s values, and are not acceptable for our nation’s top diplomat,” Menendez said in a statement on Wednesday. “The American people deserve better.”

Pompeo’s extraordinary meeting with Kim did not appear to perturb Republicans, however, who gave the administration good marks for its handling of negotiations they hope will produce a thaw in relations between the U.S. and North Korea.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said he was glad the administration was engaging in precursory negotiations before the two leaders meet in coming months.   

“I like the fact that Pompeo met with him,” Corker told reporters Wednesday at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. “I think that’s intelligent. I hope that a lot of other people would be doing the same thing. And I thought it was a good thing.”

Conservative groups, meanwhile, argued that rejecting Pompeo now, when he is engaged in sensitive diplomatic talks with an infamously reclusive leader, would seriously jeopardize the chances for peace and denuclearization on the Korean peninsula. Several groups are reportedly targeting vulnerable red-state Democrats who are on the fence about his nomination.

“Mike Pompeo is already helping President Trump negotiate denuclearization of North Korea. Senate Dems should confirm him immediately as Secretary of State,” tweeted Steve Forbes, the editor-in-chief of Forbes.

The campaign to bolster Pompeo’s bid to be the nation’s next chief diplomat appeared to be coordinated at least in part by the Trump administration. The revelation about his secret meeting with Kim “was timed to shore up Pompeo’s image as a diplomat capable of executing sensitive negotiations on the president’s behalf,” one senior administration official admitted to Politico.

Still, it’s not clear whether the late effort by the administration to help put Pompeo over the top will sway enough recalcitrant Democrats, who hold reservations about his aggressive worldview and past statements about minorities.

“The reality is even Democrats who’ve been inclined to support some of our nominations haven’t [changed their minds about Pompeo], so I don’t know that it moves the ball in either direction,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told HuffPost.

Although 15 members of the Democratic caucus voted to confirm Pompeo to lead the CIA last year, most of that group has since announced their opposition to his leading the State Department. Several holdouts remain, however, including a mix of red state and centrist senators, including Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

Manchin told reporters on Wednesday that he is “wide open” to supporting Pompeo but that he had not yet decided whether to do so.

“We had good conversations, and we’re going to have some more,” he said of Pompeo.

Pompeo’s path to the State Department could be a tricky one. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has already said he intends to vote against Pompeo. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is battling brain cancer, is not expected to return to the Senate before the vote. That means that if Paul and every member of the Democratic caucus put up a united front against Pompeo, they could tank his nomination.

But Pompeo is likely to win over at least a few moderates who are up for re-election this year, such as Manchin, Donnelly or Heitkamp. 

“Mike Pompeo will be confirmed as secretary of state next week,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a key ally of the president, predicted Wednesday in a call with reporters that was organized by the White House.