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Meet the Iran hawk who could be Trump's next secretary of State

Signs of an increasingly frayed relationship between President Trump and Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonFormer WH adviser: Trump will want to rejoin Paris climate pact by 2020 Why the US should lead on protecting Rohingya Muslims 'Bolivarian Diaspora' can no longer be ignored MORE have fueled speculation that the secretary of State could soon be on the way out.

The New York Times reported Thursday that the White House had drafted a plan to replace Tillerson with Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe CIA may need to call White House to clarify Russia meddling Intel agencies to brief officials from all 50 states on election threats Russia probe complicating House hearing on threats facing US: report MORE, a former Republican congressman who now leads the CIA.

Putting Pompeo atop the State Department would make one of the more hawkish figures in the Trump administration the nation’s chief diplomat, responsible for stewarding U.S. foreign policy at a time of roiling global tensions, particularly with North Korea.

Pompeo, who represented Kansas in Congress from 2011 until this year, has kept a relatively low profile as leader of the CIA, occasionally making headlines for remarks at think tank forums in Washington. 

Still, his brief tenure has at times been marked by controversy. The CIA was forced to walk back Pompeo’s claim last month that the U.S. intelligence community concluded Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election did not affect the outcome. The January 2017 intelligence report made no such judgment. 

Becoming secretary of State would elevate Pompeo to the global stage and put him in charge of a sprawling agency that has suffered staff departures and low morale under Tillerson.

Pompeo is known to be a stern critic of Iran and opposed the nuclear deal that was brokered with the country during the Obama administration.

He wrote in a July 2016 op-ed that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “virtually guaranteed that Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons at the end of the commitment.” Pompeo also proclaimed following Trump’s election that he looked forward to rolling back the “disastrous deal.”

Trump moved to decertify the nuclear deal in mid-October, leaving it up to Congress whether to restore sanctions on Iran. 

Pompeo has also spoken more forcefully on North Korea than Tillerson, who was admonished by the president when he stressed the need for a diplomatic resolution to stem Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions. 

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump tweeted in early October. “Save your energy Rex, we'll do what has to be done!” 

In July, Pompeo appeared to hint at the need for regime change in North Korea.

“It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today,” he said during a moderated discussion at the Aspen Security Forum.

“So from the administration's perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart,” he continued.

Last month, Pompeo indicated that North Korea was months away from achieving nuclear capabilities that could strike the United States.

Pompeo, a former Army officer, is seen as one of Trump’s most trusted Cabinet members. He travels from CIA headquarters in Virginia to the White House nearly every day for a briefing with the president on national security, Politico reported in June. 

He is also said to have met, at Trump’s direction, with a former NSA official who co-authored an analysis that casts doubt on the conclusion that Russia was behind cyber intrusions targeting the Democratic National Committee before the 2016 presidential election.

Trump has, at times, cast doubt on intelligence community assessment and described the narrative that Moscow interfered in the election as a “hoax” peddled by Democrats.

Pompeo being nominated for secretary of State would likely sit well with many Republicans who served with him in Congress, especially given the mounting frustrations with Tillerson’s management of the State Department.

But Pompeo is unlikely to find much support among Democrats, who sounded the alarm over his views on torture and mass surveillance during his confirmation process.

In response to written questions from the Senate Intelligence Committee, Pompeo signaled in January that he would be open to bringing back enhanced interrogation procedures like waterboarding, under some circumstances.

That response differed from comments made during his confirmation hearing weeks earlier, during which Pompeo asserted he would “absolutely not” comply with an order from the president to use interrogation techniques that fall outside of the Army Field Manual.

During his questioning, Pompeo also defended a proposal to set up a “comprehensive, searchable” database of domestic personal data for intelligence purposes.

Eventually, he won over 14 Democratic senators, including Intelligence Committee ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers feel pressure on guns Feinstein: Trump must urge GOP to pass bump stock ban Florida lawmakers reject motion to consider bill that would ban assault rifles MORE (D-Calif.), and was confirmed to lead the CIA by a vote of 66-32. The lone Republican voting against Pompeo was Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulDem wins Kentucky state House seat in district Trump won by 49 points GOP's tax reform bait-and-switch will widen inequality Pentagon budget euphoria could be short-lived MORE (R-Ky.), a fierce privacy and civil liberties advocate.

For now, the White House and State Department are batting down rumors that Tillerson will be ousted. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday afternoon that Trump and Tillerson are “working hard to get things big accomplished and close out what has already a very strong and positive year.” 

“When the president loses confidence in somebody, they will no longer be here,” Sanders said.