WASHINGTON — Secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo is well-known for his militaristic foreign policy stances and for his cozy relationship with President Donald Trump. As a member of Congress, Pompeo railed against a diplomatic agreement with Iran. As CIA director, he floated the idea of regime change in North Korea. During the early months of his presidency, Trump reportedly asked for Pompeo’s help in scuttling part of the Russia investigation.
But during his confirmation hearing on Thursday to be the nation’s next secretary of state, Pompeo tried to convince Democratic lawmakers that he was a forceful advocate for diplomacy over military action and that he would remain independent from the president. To make this pitch, Pompeo was forced to reverse several of his previous publicly stated positions — or claimed to have forgotten them altogether.
Over and over again, during exchanges with various members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo dodged questions about his most controversial stances, the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference, his relationship with the president, and how he plans to counter America’s adversaries.
Rescinding the Iran Deal
Shortly after Trump won the election, Pompeo celebrated the opportunity to kill the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S., and five other countries. “I look forward to rolling back this deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” he tweeted in November 2016.
Following Trump’s lead, Pompeo has since adjusted his stance on the Iran deal. Instead of threatening to walk away from the agreement outright, Pompeo told senators on Thursday that he was committed to working with the other countries that are party to the deal and fix what he and Trump have described as its flaws. Specifically, Trump and Pompeo want to remove “sunset” provisions that allow some of the limitations on Iran’s nuclear program to expire, and to tie Iran’s ballistic missile program to the nuclear deal.
The problem with this plan it requires the United Kingdom, France and Germany to go along with a U.S. effort to unilaterally rewrite the terms of the deal — and for Iran, China and Russia to accept those new terms. So when Pompeo told lawmakers he wanted to “fix” the agreement rather than kill it, he was making a distinction without a difference. That became clear when Sen. Ben Cardin (D- Md.) asked Pompeo what he thinks the U.S. should do if there is no new deal by May 12, the next time Trump has to waive sanctions against Iran or risk tanking the agreement.
“I can’t answer that question,” Pompeo said. “I want to fix this deal. That’s the objective.”
Regime Change In North Korea
As CIA director, Pompeo has openly mused about the U.S. overthrowing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“I am hopeful we will find a way to separate that regime from this system … The North Korean people, I’m sure, are lovely people and would love to see him go,” Pompeo said of Kim last July.
In October, Pompeo answered a question about what would happen if Kim died by making a quip about the CIA’s history of assassination attempts. “Someone might think there was a coincidence if, you know, there was an accident,” Pompeo said, speaking at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish think tank in Washington.
But when Cardin asked if Pompeo advocated for regime change in North Korea, Pompeo appeared offended by the suggestion. “I have never advocated for regime change,” he said.
Questioning The Russia Investigation
In March 2017, during a meeting at the White House, Trump asked Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to intervene and get then-FBI Director James Comey to stop investigating former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of the bureau’s Russia probe, The Washington Post reported last year.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked Pompeo on Thursday to confirm the Post’s reporting. Pompeo first refused to answer questions about his private conversations with Trump. Then he said he didn’t “recall” whether Trump had asked him to intervene in the Russia probe. Pressed further, Pompeo said Trump had “never asked me to do anything I considered remotely improper.”
But Pompeo, who confirmed that he has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller, did not deny outright that Trump had asked him to interfere in Comey’s investigation.
Pompeo said he didn’t “recall” whether Trump had asked him to intervene in the Russia probe.
At the CIA, Pompeo developed a close relationship with Trump and sometimes appeared to support the president’s characterization of the Russia investigation as a politically motivated witch hunt. Last October, Pompeo met with William Binney, a former National Security Agency official-turned whistleblower who claims that the DNC hack was an inside job rather than an attack by Russia. That same month, Pompeo incorrectly claimed that U.S. intelligence agencies had found that Russian election interference did not alter the election’s outcome — a statement that contradicted the intelligence community’s public reporting, which said it considered such a conclusion outside the scope of its investigation. A CIA spokesman later had to clarify that Pompeo did not mean to suggest that the intelligence community’s assessment had changed.
By the end of the hearing, Democrats were practically begging Pompeo to tell them that he disagreed with Trump’s repeated attacks on Mueller. Each time, Pompeo refused to engage.
Asked by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) if he would resign if Trump fired Mueller, Pompeo said, “My instincts tell me no.” Pompeo also declined to comment on the legality of the president firing the special counsel.
Islamophobia And Homophobia
Throughout his political career, Pompeo has worked with some of Washington’s best-known Islamophobes. He has appeared multiple times on a radio show hosted by Frank Gaffney, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who has praised white nationalists on his show and said that Muslim members of Congress shouldn’t serve on sensitive committees because they might leak information to the Muslim Brotherhood. Pompeo has also attended events put on by Act for America, a group that opposes the construction of mosques and frets about Sharia law. The group’s founder, Brigitte Gabriel, claims that Islam is an inherently violent religion.
Asked by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) if he ever called out Gaffney or Gabriel for their comments about Muslims, Pompeo said he could not remember every statement he had made in his 54-year-long life. But he assured Booker that he did call out Fred Phelps, the now-deceased anti-gay preacher in Kansas who was behind the website www.godhatesfags.com.
Pivoting to Phelps was a curious strategy for Pompeo, who has made homophobic remarks. When Booker asked Pompeo whether he believes that being gay is a “perversion,” Pompeo said he continues to believe that same-sex couples should not be allowed to get married.
Pompeo told Booker that despite believing that LGBTQ people should have fewer rights than straight people, “his respect for every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation, the respect is the same.”
View Of WikiLeaks
Like Trump, Pompeo was a big fan of WikiLeaks during the presidential campaign. “Need further proof that the fix was in from Pres. Obama on down? BUSTED: 19,252 Emails from DNC Leaked by Wikileaks,” Pompeo, then a congressman, tweeted in July 2016 from an account that is no longer active.
Asked by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) if he agreed that WikiLeaks is a hostile nonstate actor, Pompeo said that he did.
Prospects for Confirmation
It’s too early to tell whether Pompeo’s testimony will convince enough skeptical senators to support his nomination. 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.
It’s far from certain that every Democrat will vote against the secretary of state nominee, however. Last year, 15 members of the Democratic caucus voted to confirm Pompeo to run the CIA, a job that is arguably higher-stakes and comes with less oversight. This time, he’s likely to win over at least a few moderates who are up for re-election this year, like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) or Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
But Democrats are under intense pressure from human rights groups to block both Pompeo and Gina Haspel, who has been nominated to replace Pompeo at the CIA. There are already some indications that the pressure is working.
“I voted YES on Pompeo for CIA on the theory that he would be the ‘adult in the room.’ I was wrong,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) tweeted on Wednesday. “I am voting NO on Pompeo for Secretary of State because our top diplomat should believe in diplomacy. He has an alarming tendency towards military provocation and brinkmanship.”
Menendez, who voted against Pompeo last year, said at the end of the hearing that he wasn’t sure whether to evaluate Pompeo based on his past record or what he said on Thursday during his confirmation hearing. “The Pompeo I hear today, much more different than some of the Pompeo of the past,” Menendez said. “And so I’m trying to figure out which is the one that is going to act if he gets confirmed as the secretary of state.”