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 PompeoRyan: 'The president must appreciate that Russia is not our ally' Former CIA director Brennan urges Pompeo, Bolton, Kelly to resign following 'treasonous' Trump-Putin summit Mnuchin says US will consider Iran oil sanctions waivers: report 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 TrumpShocking summit with Putin caps off Trump’s turbulent Europe trip GOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit 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 PaulLewandowski: Trump-Putin meeting advances goal of world peace Rand Paul to travel to Russia after downplaying election meddling Implementation of a 'universal basic income' program would be a disaster MORE (R-Ky.) and with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit NY Daily News cover following Helsinki summit shows Trump shooting Uncle Sam 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 UdallEPA deputy says he's not interested in Pruitt’s job Latina Leaders to Watch 2018 Overnight Energy: Spending bill targets Pruitt | Ryan not paying 'close attention' to Pruitt controversies | Yellowstone park chief learned of dismissal through press release 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 ShaheenDoug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee Female lawmakers, candidates must be the voice for women worldwide GOP lawmakers plan official visit to Russia later this week MORE (N.H.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineDem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick Election Countdown: Latest on the 2018 Senate money race | Red-state Dems feeling the heat over Kavanaugh | Dem doubts about Warren | Ocasio-Cortez to visit Capitol Hill | Why Puerto Ricans in Florida could swing Senate race Green Day's 'American Idiot' climbs UK charts ahead of Trump visit 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 McConnellGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Overnight Defense: Washington reeling from Trump, Putin press conference Feehery: The long game 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) ManchinMorrisey accuses Manchin of 'lying' to Trump, attacks ‘liberal’ record The Hill's Morning Report — Trump, Putin meet under cloud of Mueller’s Russia indictments Doug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDoug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Dem infighting erupts over Supreme Court pick MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDoug Jones walks tightrope on Supreme Court nominee Red-state Dem tells Schumer to 'kiss my you know what' on Supreme Court vote Overnight Health Care: Official defends suspending insurer payments | What Kavanaugh's nomination means for ObamaCare | Panel approves bill to halt employer mandate 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) MenendezCNN anchors break into laughter over comedian's alleged prank call to Trump Comedian claims he tricked Trump while impersonating Dem senator Schumer: Obama 'very amenable' to helping Senate Dems in midterms 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 CoatsTrump stuns the world at Putin summit Trump: ‘Phony witch hunt’ drove wedge between US, Russia Press: Whose side is Trump on? 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 RosensteinFreedom Caucus lawmakers call on DOJ to probe Rosenstein allegations Press: Whose side is Trump on? Indictments show the need for Mueller investigation to continue 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 CoonsSunday shows preview: Trump readies for meeting with Putin Sunday shows preview: Washington braces for Trump's Supreme Court pick America stands to lose as China places bets on developing world MORE (D-Del.).

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump readies for Putin summit: 'He’s not my enemy’ Booker seizes on Kavanaugh confirmation fight Dem senator: Kavanaugh would 'turn back the clock' on women's health care 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 CorkerGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Flake to introduce resolution countering Trump's Russia summit rhetoric Corker: Trump made US look 'like a pushover' 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 TillersonUS steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation 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.