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 PompeoTrump travels to Dover Air Force Base to meet with families of Americans killed in Syria Overnight Defense: Second Trump-Kim summit planned for next month | Pelosi accuses Trump of leaking Afghanistan trip plans | Pentagon warns of climate threat to bases | Trump faces pressure to reconsider Syria exit Pompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation 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 TrumpSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Rove warns Senate GOP: Don't put only focus on base Ann Coulter blasts Trump shutdown compromise: ‘We voted for Trump and got Jeb!’ 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 PaulPressure mounts for Trump to reconsider Syria withdrawal House Republicans call for moving State of the Union to Senate chamber GOP rep: 'Rand Paul is giving the president bad advice' on Afghanistan and Syria MORE (R-Ky.) and with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO Mark Kelly considering Senate bid as Arizona Dems circle McSally 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 UdallSchumer wants answers from Trump on eminent domain at border Senate in last-minute talks to find deal to avert shutdown  House-passed stopgap measure in Senate limbo 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 ShaheenGOP reasserts NATO support after report on Trump’s wavering Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party The Hill's Morning Report — Trump eyes wall money options as shutdown hits 21 days MORE (N.H.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineTrump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback Democrats signal they'll reject Trump shutdown proposal Trump expected to pitch immigration deal to end funding stalemate 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 McConnellSunday shows preview: Shutdown negotiations continue after White House immigration proposal Senate to take up Trump's border-immigration plan next week Trump pitches new plan to reopen government amid Dem pushback 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) ManchinSenate rejects government-wide ban on abortion funding Centrist efforts to convince Trump to end shutdown falter Bipartisan group of senators will urge Trump to reopen government for 3 weeks MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampOn The Money: Shutdown Day 27 | Trump fires back at Pelosi by canceling her foreign travel | Dems blast 'petty' move | Trump also cancels delegation to Davos | House votes to disapprove of Trump lifting Russia sanction Gary Cohn criticizes the shutdown: 'Completely wrong' EPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyEPA's Wheeler faces grilling over rule rollbacks Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party Senate approves funding bill, preventing partial government shutdown 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) MenendezBuzzFeed story has more to say about media than the president More oversight of America’s international media networks a good idea Pro-Israel organizations should finally seek payback against Iran deal Dems 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 CoatsThe Hill's Morning Report — Trump’s attorney general pick passes first test Dems zero in on Trump and Russia National security center launches program to help US firms guard against foreign hackers 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 Rosenstein5 myths about William Barr William Barr's only 'flaw' is that he was nominated by Trump The Hill's Morning Report — Shutdown fallout — economic distress 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 CoonsOvernight Defense: Trump unveils new missile defense plan | Dems express alarm | Shutdown hits Day 27 | Trump cancels Pelosi foreign trip | Senators offer bill to prevent NATO withdrawal Bipartisan senators reintroduce bill to prevent Trump from withdrawing from NATO Sunday shows preview: Washington heads into multi-day shutdown MORE (D-Del.).

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker2020 Democrats barnstorm the country for MLK weekend Ocasio-Cortez returns to 'The Late Show' on Monday We need action on personal cybersecurity 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 CorkerThe Memo: Romney moves stir worries in Trump World Senate GOP names first female members to Judiciary panel Former US special envoy to anti-ISIS coalition joins Stanford University as lecturer 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 TillersonPompeo planning to meet with Pat Roberts amid 2020 Senate speculation Trump concealed details of meetings with Putin from senior officials: report Forget the border wall, a coup in Guatemala is the real emergency 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.