Pompeo Gets a Grilling on the Hill

Mike Pompeo’s charm offensive may have stumbled out of the gate in his confirmation hearing to be Trump’s top diplomat.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Protesters stand and chant behind Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo before his confirmation hearing in the Senate on April 12. (Jim WatsonAFP/Getty Images)
Protesters stand and chant behind Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo before his confirmation hearing in the Senate on April 12. (Jim WatsonAFP/Getty Images)

Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo got an icy reception Thursday from Democratic lawmakers, despite his efforts to strike a more moderate tone on his foreign-policy views.

During his prepared remarks, Pompeo opened with a charm offensive, outlining his family life and his background in the military, and assuring the committee he would restore the U.S. State Department and quickly fill the many vacancies at the department with top-notch candidates. “I am a talent hawk,” he said.

But Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), ranking member of the committee, came out swinging and drilled Pompeo on his private meetings with President Donald Trump regarding the ongoing investigation into Kremlin-directed election meddling, the decision to fire former FBI Director James Comey, and purported interference by Trump in the Russia investigation. Pompeo declined to comment on his private conversations with president, which Menendez called “troubling.”

In his opening remarks, Menendez also took the opportunity to rip into Trump’s foreign policy, saying the “American people are deeply worried by an erratic president who uses schoolboy taunts when talking about nuclear war.”

The hearing — briefly interrupted by protesters chanting, “No more war, no Pompeo!” — gave lawmakers a rare chance to grill a top Trump official on some of the president’s most controversial foreign-policy measures. This includes what critics call an incoherent Syria strategy, relations with Russia, Trump’s upcoming meeting with North Korea, and his proposed trade tariffs on economic giants like China that have sparked fears of a trade war.

The Senate is widely expected to confirm Pompeo, but the final vote could be a nail-biter. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) last month announced he would refuse to support Pompeo’s nomination, upsetting the committee’s narrow 11-10 seat Republican majority.

Regardless of how the panel votes, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can advance his nomination to a Senate-wide vote, where Republicans are banking on picking up a few Democratic votes to push him through with their narrow 51-49 majority.

The Trump administration hoped to hustle him through the confirmation process quickly, so the president will have a new secretary of state in place to address the array of looming foreign-policy crises before him, while new national security advisor John Bolton settles into his role. The rush job gave Democratic lawmakers and outside groups little time to mount an opposition in the run-up to the confirmation, but some still dug in their heels.

Some 70 progressive advocacy groups and nonprofits sent a letter to the Senate urging them to reject Pompeo’s nomination, citing his controversial past ties with advocacy groups perceived as anti-LGBT and Islamophobic.

Meanwhile, 30 top former national security officials countered with a letter of their own supporting his confirmation, calling him a “strong choice” to be Trump’s top diplomat.

Over the past week, Pompeo met with senators from both sides of the aisle and called past secretaries of state, including Trump’s arch political rival, Hillary Clinton, as Politico reported. Pompeo in closed-door meetings rebuffed criticisms he was a warmonger and assured lawmakers he would value diversity at the State Department, congressional staffers tell Foreign Policy

During his prepared remarks before the hearing, Pompeo struck a modest and self-deprecating tone when outlining his experience. “When I was a teenager, I was employee of the month at Baskin Robbins not once, but twice,” he said.

At the hearing, Pompeo parried blows from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who got into a heated exchange on the nominee’s views on the Iran deal and Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.

Some senators aimed to pry out assurances from Pompeo that he would quickly fill scores of empty posts in Foggy Bottom and restore the State Department after 14 months of forced resignations and hiring freezes that came to define former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s legacy.

“You have got to have really good, solid people around you to be able to make the bureaucracy work,” said Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho), who is widely expected to lead the foreign relations committee when the current chairman, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), steps down.

Since Trump came into office, the State Department has lost 50 percent of its top leadership and is promoting 50 percent fewer diplomats into the senior foreign service ranks, according to data compiled by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Dozens of ambassador posts, including to South Korea and Turkey, remain empty.

“This is the part of the job that isn’t flashy and doesn’t usually get as much media attention, but it is just as important as any other aspect of the secretary’s duties,” Corker told Pompeo.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer