Five things to watch in Pompeo’s nomination hearing

Greg Nash

CIA Director Mike Pompeo will face the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday as he seeks to become President Trump’s next secretary of State.

Pompeo, who was nominated after former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired, would have to hit the ground running on a number of hot-button issues around the world, from the war in Syria to a historic U.S.-North Korea summit to the fast-approaching deadline on the Iran nuclear deal.

He’ll also likely have to answer for his House record as a hawk who took controversial stances on issues such as torture, as well as whether or not he will challenge any of Trump’s positions.

Pompeo is expected to face a difficult battle for confirmation. He was confirmed as CIA director on a 66-32 vote that included support from 14 Democrats. But some Democrats have indicated they may not support him this time around.

And one of the Foreign Relations Committee’s Republicans has already announced his opposition, meaning Pompeo could be voted down in committee if he gets no Democratic votes.

Here are five things to watch as Pompeo works to win over senators.

What’s his position on Russia?

Trump has been accused of being too soft on Moscow and has lashed out at the various investigations into possible collusion between his campaign and Russia during the presidential election.

Meanwhile, the two nuclear powers are staring each other down and trading threats over Syria, where Syrian President Bashar Assad, who’s backed by Moscow, is suspected of carrying out another chemical weapons attack against civilians.

Pompeo will likely face questions over his position on Syria, his record when it comes to Russia and whether he agrees with Trump’s criticisms of the investigations into the campaign, particularly amid rising concerns over the fate of special counsel Robert Mueller.

Pompeo found himself at the center of several incidents related to the matter while serving as CIA director. The agency had to walk back his October comment that Russia’s meddling didn’t affect the outcome of the election; the intelligence community has made no such assessment.

At Trump’s behest, Pompeo also reportedly met with a former intelligence official pushing a disputed theory that the Democratic National Committee hack was an inside job, rather than done by the Russians. And Pompeo raised eyebrows in January when he met with two top Russian spy chiefs, one of whom is subject to U.S. sanctions.

How will he handle North Korea?

The administration is in the midst of planning a historic meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that the White House says will take place in May or June.

As CIA director, Pompeo is already in the thick of it, reportedly taking the lead on back-channel communications with Pyongyang to lay the groundwork for the summit.

But senators will want to know how he’ll handle North Korea as the U.S.’s top diplomat. In particular, Pompeo made waves last year for comments many inferred as supporting regime change.

“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,” Pompeo said at the Aspen Security Forum in July.

“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 said.

Does he support rolling back the Iran deal?

Another issue that would face Pompeo immediately after he steps in the door at Foggy Bottom is the Iran nuclear deal — or, depending on how fast he is confirmed, the potential fallout from the U.S. withdrawing.

Trump set a May 12 deadline for European allies to agree to improve the nuclear accord, with the ultimatum that the U.S. will essentially withdraw by refusing to renew sanctions waivers.

While a member of Congress in 2016, Pompeo argued that the Iran deal “virtually guaranteed that Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons.” Following Trump’s election but before he became CIA director, Pompeo said he looked “forward to rolling back this disastrous deal.”

But, as senators have noted, being a congressman and being secretary of State are two different things. As such, they’ll press him on whether he still wants to roll the deal back and what the administration’s latest thinking is as the deadline approaches.

How will he address the torture question?

One senator on the committee — maverick Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — has already indicated that he will oppose Pompeo on the basis of his past support for the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” now commonly characterized as torture. 

Pompeo will almost certainly face a repeat of the grilling that lawmakers on the Senate Intelligence Committee gave him on the topic during his confirmation for CIA director.

At the time, he told lawmakers that he would “absolutely not” comply with an order from the president to resume the use of techniques like waterboarding — but noted that “I can’t imagine that I would be asked that” by President Trump, who on the campaign trail publicly called for the resumption of torture.

Human rights organizations have already raised alarms over Pompeo as secretary of State, calling for serious scrutiny of his past record on the issue.

From his former post on the House Intelligence Committee, Pompeo condemned new Obama administration rules limiting government interrogators to techniques in the Army Field Manual — regulations that are up for review this year.

Will he tackle the reports of low morale at State?

Pompeo will almost certainly be pressed on the issue of morale at the State Department, which by all accounts plummeted under Tillerson. Career staffers complained of being marginalized, sidelined and cut out of the policymaking process under the former top diplomat, who did not enjoy an in-sync relationship with the president and whose department restructuring effort was expected at one point to make dramatic staffing cuts.

A number of career and appointed positions at the department still remain vacant.

It’s unclear whether Pompeo wants to continue with Tillerson’s reorganization plan. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said after Pompeo’s nomination that the department would compile information for him and that he can “choose what he wants to do with it.”

But some at State have reportedly viewed Pompeo with a certain amount of hope that his close relationship with the president will herald a more robust role for Foggy Bottom.

Updated April 12 at 7:51 a.m.

Tags Central Intelligence Agency Confirmation hearing Donald Trump Mike Pompeo Rand Paul Rex Tillerson Robert Mueller secretary of State

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