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 PompeoUS, Sudan to exchange ambassadors for first time in decades Iran expert: Trump's foreign policy approach aimed at instigating 'unrest' Fox's Napolitano says obstruction 'easiest' impeachment offense for Democrats 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 TrumpStates slashed 4,400 environmental agency jobs in past decade: study Biden hammers Trump over video of world leaders mocking him Iran building hidden arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles in Iraq: report 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 PaulTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Democratic congressman calls for study of effects of sex-trafficking law McConnell says he's 'honored' to be WholeFoods Magazine's 2019 'Person of the Year' MORE (R-Ky.) and with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainLessons of the Kamala Harris campaign Overnight Defense: Trump clashes with Macron at NATO summit | House impeachment report says Trump abused power | Top Dem scolds military leaders on Trump intervention in war crimes cases Top Armed Services Democrat scolds military leaders on Trump's intervention in war crimes cases 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 UdallSenate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters Bureau of Land Management staff face relocation or resignation as agency moves west Overnight Energy: EPA watchdog slams agency chief after deputy fails to cooperate in probe | Justices wrestle with reach of Clean Water Act | Bipartisan Senate climate caucus grows 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 ShaheenBiden reveals four women he could pick as his running mate Senate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters Progressive group to spend as much as M to turn out young voters MORE (N.H.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael Kaine'Granite Express' flight to take staffers, journalists to NH after Iowa caucuses Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Senate panel approves Trump FDA pick | Biden downplays Dem enthusiasm around 'Medicare for All' | Trump officials unveil program for free HIV prevention drugs for uninsured Trump's FDA nominee approved by Senate panel 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 McConnellTrump's legal team huddles with Senate Republicans Schumer briefs Democrats on impeachment trial 'mechanics' Trump legal team gears up for Senate impeachment trial in meeting with GOP senators 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) ManchinNo one wins with pro-abortion litmus test Senate confirms Brouillette to replace Perry as Energy secretary Political purity tests are for losers MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampThe Hill's Morning Report — Biden steadies in third debate as top tier remains the same Trump wins 60 percent approval in rural areas of key states Pence to push new NAFTA deal in visit to Iowa MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyGinsburg health scare raises prospect of election year Supreme Court battle Watchdog accuses pro-Kavanaugh group of sending illegal robotexts in 2018 Lobbying world 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 (Bob) Swan MuellerTrump says he'll release financial records before election, knocks Dems' efforts House impeachment hearings: The witch hunt continues Speier says impeachment inquiry shows 'very strong case of bribery' by Trump 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) MenendezThe job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' Senate passes legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters Graham blocks resolution recognizing Armenian genocide after Erdoğan meeting 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 CoatsFormer US intel official says Trump would often push back in briefings Hillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Intelligence agencies have stopped collecting cellphone data without warrants: letter 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 RosensteinRosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe Judge rules former WH counsel McGahn must testify under subpoena 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 CoonsSenate Democrats ask Pompeo to recuse himself from Ukraine matters Hillicon Valley: Google to limit political ad targeting | Senators scrutinize self-driving car safety | Trump to 'look at' Apple tariff exemption | Progressive lawmakers call for surveillance reforms | House panel advances telecom bills Democrats raise privacy concerns over Amazon home security system MORE (D-Del.).

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerLGBTQ advocates slam Buttigieg for past history with Salvation Army Harris posts video asking baby if she'll run for president one day Krystal Ball: What Harris's exit means for the other 2020 candidates 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 CorkerRNC says ex-Trump ambassador nominee's efforts 'to link future contributions to an official action' were 'inappropriate' Lindsey Graham basks in the impeachment spotlight The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Nareit — White House cheers Republicans for storming impeachment hearing 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 TillersonReport: Trump UK ambassador fired deputy for mentioning Obama in speech Overnight Defense: Ex-Navy secretary slams Trump in new op-ed | Impeachment tests Pompeo's ties with Trump | Mexican president rules out US 'intervention' against cartels Pompeo-Trump relationship tested by impeachment inquiry 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.