Pompeo faces difficult panel vote after grilling by Dems

Pompeo faces difficult panel vote after grilling by Dems
© Greg Nash

CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump directs Pentagon to create 'Space Force' | Lawmakers say new branch needs their approval | Senate passes 6B defense policy bill | Pentagon suspends planning for 'war game' with South Korea Pompeo: China's calls for trade openness, globalization 'a joke' A mandate for change in Armenia MORE on Thursday faced a grilling from Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, suggesting he faces uncertain prospects to win a panel vote to become the nation’s top diplomat.

Pompeo declined to answer repeated questions from Democrats related to the ongoing Russia investigations and was challenged at several points to break with President TrumpDonald John Trump20 weeks out from midterms, Dems and GOP brace for surprises Sessions responds to Nazi comparisons: 'They were keeping the Jews from leaving' Kim Jong Un to visit Beijing this week MORE, as lawmakers voiced concerns that he would be too deferential as secretary of State.

Pompeo’s performance seemed widely to please Republicans on the panel, but with the defection of Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate passes 6B defense bill This week: House GOP caught in immigration limbo Amendments fuel resentments within Senate GOP MORE (R-Ky.) and with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril McCain calls on Trump to rescind family separation policy: It's 'an affront to the decency of the American people' Senate passes 6B defense bill MORE (R-Ariz.) home receiving treatment for cancer, he will need support from Democrats to win confirmation.

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Getting a majority vote from the panel — the first hurdle for the former Kansas congressman — could prove difficult.

Paul, who vowed to oppose Pompeo’s nomination over his support for the Iraq War and his past position on torture, sits on the committee. If the committee’s 10 Democrats join him in voting against Pompeo, it would be a 11-10 vote against his confirmation.

No Democrats on the panel have so far offered their support.

Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Energy: Spending bill targets Pruitt | Ryan not paying 'close attention' to Pruitt controversies | Yellowstone park chief learned of dismissal through press release Senate committee targets Pruitt scandals in spending bill Overnight Energy: DNC to reject fossil fuel donations | Regulators see no security risk in coal plant closures | Senate committee rejects Trump EPA, Interior budgets MORE (D-N.M.) has already announced that he will oppose the nomination and at least two other Democratic committee members who supported his confirmation as CIA director — Sens. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenAmerica will not forget about Pastor Andrew Brunson Shaheen sidelined after skin surgery Members of Congress demand new federal gender pay audit MORE (N.H.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineKoch brothers group won't back Stewart in Virginia Kaine shares photos of child detention facility: ‘The real Trump Hotel’ GOP senator: Family separation policy 'inconsistent' with American values MORE (Va.) — have expressed concerns.

For Democrats, a common theme Thursday was how Pompeo views the executive branch’s authority to conduct war in hot spots ranging from Syria to North Korea to Iran. The nominee appeared to stumble on the questions at times, saying he did not want to conduct an impromptu legal analysis.

Still, he pushed back on the notion that he is a war hawk — a concern raised by Democrats who have been unnerved by the recent appointment of notoriously hawkish national security adviser John Bolton.

“Every day at the forefront of our mind is how can we find solutions that achieve the American objective but avoid us having to put a single American in harm's way,” Pompeo said when asked if Trump is assembling a “war Cabinet.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellSenate passes 6B defense bill Poll: Kim Jong Un has higher approval among Republicans than Pelosi The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by PhRMA — Outcry raises pressure on GOP for immigration fix MORE (R-Ky.) could still bring Pompeo’s nomination to the floor for a vote even if he is given an unfavorable vote by the committee — an extraordinary move that has only been leveraged successfully for a Cabinet member once in the Senate’s history, in 1945 when former President Roosevelt appointed Henry Wallace to be secretary of Commerce.

Pompeo could prevail in a floor vote by winning support from centrist Democrats facing reelection this fall in states Trump won by double-digits in 2016. Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinKaine shares photos of child detention facility: ‘The real Trump Hotel’ Manchin becomes final Democrat to back bill preventing separation of immigrant families Manchin touts support for Trump border wall in new ad MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampPoll: GOP challenger narrowly leads Heitkamp in North Dakota Trump plan to claw back billion in spending in peril Manchin becomes final Democrat to back bill preventing separation of immigrant families MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyManchin becomes final Democrat to back bill preventing separation of immigrant families Dems seek to leverage ObamaCare fight for midterms Todd Young in talks about chairing Senate GOP campaign arm MORE (Ind.) all voted to confirm him as CIA director last year.

All three have said they would wait for his appearance before the committee to make a decision. That appearance, which lasted five hours on Thursday, was dominated by rocky exchanges with minority members.

The CIA chief particularly frustrated Democrats when he declined to offer any details on his involvement in any of the myriad federal and congressional probes into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election. While he confirmed that he had cooperated with a requested interview with special counsel Robert MuellerRobert Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE, he declined to say more.

“I'm not going to speak to” the subject of the conversation, he said, but cautioned that lawmakers should draw no “negative inferences or positive inferences” from his circumspection.

Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSchumer: Obama 'very amenable' to helping Senate Dems in midterms The Hill's Morning Report: Can Trump close the deal with North Korea? Senate must save itself by confirming Mike Pompeo MORE (D-N.J.), the ranking member of the committee, told reporters after the hearing that he plans to ask Mueller if Pompeo is allowed to say what the topic of the conversation was and decide how to vote from there.

“Is he barred from giving testimony to the committee on this singular question,” Menendez said. “If the answer's no — that’s obviously all [Mueller] will tell me — there’s no bar, then I’m going to press for a real answer. If I don’t get an answer, that’s going to be a huge pejorative.”

Pompeo also declined to discuss the details of an Oval Office meeting that took place in March, during which Trump reportedly pressed Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsGOP senator places hold on Trump counterintelligence nominee Civil liberties groups press Trump administration on NSA call record collection Trump’s ‘Syraqistan’ strategy is a success — and a failure MORE to intervene in the Russia investigation.

Pompeo said he didn’t recall what the president asked him during the meeting, but noted that “he has never asked me to do anything I consider remotely improper” — an answer Democrats saw as contradictory.

“Those are entirely consistent, senator,” Pompeo said when later pressed on the answer. “If he asked me to do something inappropriate, I'd remember."

Asked if he would resign in protest if the president were to fire Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinGowdy: House will use 'full arsenal' of constitutional weapons to get DOJ, FBI compliance on subpoenas Bannon says Trump should fire Rosenstein if he doesn’t comply with subpoenas James Comey's higher disloyalty to America MORE in a bid to undermine the Mueller investigation, Pompeo said he would not.

“My instincts tell me no,” he told Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsHillicon Valley: Trump hits China with massive tech tariffs | Facebook meets with GOP leaders over bias allegations | Judge sends Manafort to jail ahead of trial | AT&T completes Time Warner purchase Dem senator: Trump Jr. may have given 'false testimony' about meeting with foreign nationals Overnight Finance: House sends Dodd-Frank rollbacks to Trump | What's in the bill | Trump says there is 'no deal' to help ZTE | Panel approves bill to toughen foreign investment reviews MORE (D-Del.).

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerTo strengthen our democracy, we need to remove obstacles that keep students from voting Members of Congress demand new federal gender pay audit The Hill's Morning Report — Can the economy help Republicans buck political history in 2018? MORE (D-N.J.) pressed Pompeo on whether he believes that people worshipping “other gods” in America is a negative thing. Pompeo insisted that his record demonstrates he has treated people of “each and every faith with the dignity they deserve.”

Booker also asked Pompeo whether he believes that Muslims who fail to speak out against extremist violence are complicit in that violence. Pompeo answered that every individual has a “special obligation” to push back against such attacks, but suggested that Muslims are “better positioned” to speak out because of their religious views.

“For certain places, for certain forms of violence, there are some who are better positioned — folks who are more credible, more trustworthy, have a more shared experience — and so when it comes to making sure that we don’t have a terrorist brewing in places where Muslims congregate, there’s a special place — they have an opportunity. It’s more than a duty, it’s an opportunity,” Pompeo said.

“So you think that Muslims in America who are in positions of leadership have a different category of obligation because of their religion?” Booker asked.

“It’s not an obligation, it's an opportunity,” Pompeo answered.

With the exception of Paul, Republicans were largely genial throughout the hearing.

Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSenate chaplain offers prayer 'as children are being separated from their parents' Senate passes 6B defense bill This week: House GOP caught in immigration limbo MORE (R-Tenn.) at several points came to Pompeo’s defense after Democratic questioning, and predicted Pompeo would end up receiving bipartisan support. He did not specify, however, if that meant in the committee or a floor vote.

“I realize that for many Democrats voting for him is a proxy on the administration,” he said. “I have a sense that there’s going to be bipartisan support for him. I think he acquitted himself well.

“Just in watching people’s response to him, they were more favorably impressed than they thought they would be.”

Still, Corker also signaled that at least some Republicans have concerns about whether Pompeo will stand up to Trump given their close relationship.

“I think it’s fair for our members to ask whether your relationship is rooted in a candid, healthy, give-and-take dynamic or whether it’s based on deferential willingness to go along to get along,” Corker said.

In one key moment on Thursday, Pompeo told senators that the “historic conflict” between the U.S. and Russia is due to Moscow's “bad behavior” — contradicting Trump's assertion that the special counsel's probe is to blame.

Pompeo did appear to satisfy Democrats on the issue of morale at the State Department, which by all accounts took a hit under former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonNorth Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report North America wins 2026 bid to host World Cup after lobbying from Trump Trump, Tillerson pledged to ease travel ban to win World Cup bid MORE.

Pompeo drew a gentle but pointed contrast between himself and Tillerson, noting that employees had told him that they felt “demoralized” and he has committed to filling vacancies.

“I'm confident that you would be a good advocate for the career professionals at the State Department and USAID,” Coons said on Thursday.

Pompeo was confirmed to be Trump’s CIA director in a 66-32 vote last year, a tally that included 14 Democrats supporting him.

Corker said he expects a committee vote as early as a week from Monday.

If Pompeo is reported favorably, Corker expects a floor vote before recess the first week of May.