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Pompeo North Korea Visit Throws Wrench in Confirmation Fight

The behind-the-scenes effort to rally enough senators to confirm Pompeo just got tougher.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo walks to a meeting with Virginia Sen. Mark Warner on Capitol Hill on April 18. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
CIA Director Mike Pompeo walks to a meeting with Virginia Sen. Mark Warner on Capitol Hill on April 18. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The Republican drive to confirm CIA Director Mike Pompeo as secretary of state was already a nail-biter, but it may be even more uncertain following the bombshell revelations that he secretly traveled to North Korea weeks ago to lay the groundwork for denuclearization negotiations.

The reaction to the news, which caught lawmakers off guard, split along partisan lines, with Republicans mostly reacting positively to the news and Democrats criticizing Pompeo for not disclosing the trip in his private meetings with senators before the vote.

But the trip could provide opportunity for some of the 15 Democrats who voted for him as CIA director to oppose his secretary of state nomination, Democratic congressional aides familiar with the deliberations say. The potential backlash could complicate the White House’s efforts to drive his confirmation across the finish line in what could be the tightest vote for a secretary of state in recorded U.S. history.

Republicans may have already lost their slim 11-10 majority over Democrats in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced last month that he would oppose Pompeo’s nomination on the grounds of his hawkish foreign-policy views and support for the Iraq War. Pompeo could be the first secretary of state to not receive a positive vote out of the overseeing committee on foreign relations, which wouldn’t kill his nomination but could be a black mark on his tenure as secretary out of the gate.

Paul “has never let me down,” President Donald Trump said on Wednesday, speaking from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where he met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “I don’t think he will let us down again.”

“I think that Mike will be in good shape,” Trump added. “We’ll see what happens.”

Whether or not the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approves him, Pompeo faces a narrow floor vote where he will have to pick up at least one Democrat in the narrow 51-49 Republican-majority Senate.

Republicans are targeting vulnerable red state Democrats to split with their party and vote for Pompeo. That they have to do this in the first place is unprecedented: Historically, secretaries of state have sailed through the confirmation vote. (Hillary Clinton, for example, was confirmed by a vote of 94 to 2 in 2009.)

“The opinion of the two-bit Talleyrands among the Senate Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee will not matter,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), referring to the 19th-century French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, widely affiliated with cynical and double-dealing diplomacy.

He spoke with top White House advisor Kellyanne Conway on a call arranged with reporters Wednesday afternoon.

Pompeo headed to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to hunt for more senators who are on the fence, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a red state Democrat, and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who was one of the Democrats who voted for Pompeo to be CIA director last year.

“I’m just hear working every vote,” Pompeo told reporters in passing between meetings.

On Tuesday, the CIA director met with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin from West Virginia, a state that voted overwhelmingly for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Manchin’s spokesperson says he “remains open-minded” about voting for Pompeo after news of the North Korea visit.

Other key swing votes, congressional sources say, include Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.). Heitkamp’s spokesperson says she still hasn’t made a decision. Donnelly’s office did not immediately respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.

The Republican camp seemed mostly pleased with Pompeo’s trip, seeing it as a sign Trump was moving the ball forward on negotiations on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, which this administration frames as one of the top threats to U.S. national security.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters on Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of the visit but reacted positively to the news. “Honestly, it doesn’t bother me at all,” he said at a breakfast event. “I’m glad that he was there.”

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking member on the committee, announced that he would oppose Pompeo’s nomination, citing in part how he did not disclose or even allude to his secret visit with committee members in advance.

“Even in my private conversations with him, he didn’t tell me about his visit to North Korea,” Menendez said in a statement explaining his decision.

“Now I don’t expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open, but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be secretary of state, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit,” he added. 

Republicans countered this narrative, saying his surprise visit to Pyongyang was further evidence that the Senate needs to confirm him quickly and could put those who oppose him in a bind.

“This is a good example of how critical it is on the merits to confirm Mike Pompeo,” Cotton said. “He’s already invested deeply in the upcoming summit between the president and [North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un.”

“It would send a very bad sign, and it would, I believe, set back the preparations and perhaps even the results of that upcoming summit for Senate Democrats to oppose as a block Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be secretary of state,” he added.

Conway told reporters that Trump “is already viewing Director Pompeo as the nation’s chief diplomat.”

Pompeo visited Pyongyang in a rare and secret trip over “Easter weekend,” as the Washington Post first reported and Trump later confirmed. The trip was meant to hash out details on what would be the first-ever meeting between a U.S. president and North Korean leader. Pompeo met directly with Kim, who since taking power in 2011 has ramped up the country’s nuclear weapons program despite overwhelming international condemnation.

Pompeo’s visit stood in stark contrast to the efforts of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was publicly undercut by the White House time and again in successive diplomatic efforts on North Korea during his 14 months in office.

“For the North Koreans, Pompeo was an attractive interlocutor primarily because they know he has a good relationship with the president,” says Suzanne DiMaggio, a scholar at the New America think tank.

DiMaggio, who helped broker the first formal discussions between the Trump administration and North Korean officials last year, believes Pompeo had a leg up on his predecessor.

“The fact is that the North Koreans would never have viewed Tillerson in that way,” she says.

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

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