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 PompeoSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Pompeo: 'We've not been successful' in changing US-Russia relations Positive Moon-Kim summit creates a diplomatic opening in North Korea 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: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her 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 PaulConservatives left frustrated as Congress passes big spending bills Senate approves 4B spending bill Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE (R-Ky.) and with Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ 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 increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh Trump administration weakens methane pollution standards for drilling on public lands Senate Dems want DOJ review of Giuliani's work for foreign entities 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 ShaheenSome employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report Dems seek ways to block Trump support for Saudi-led coalition in Yemen Hillicon Valley: Trump signs off on sanctions for election meddlers | Russian hacker pleads guilty over botnet | Reddit bans QAnon forum | FCC delays review of T-Mobile, Sprint merger | EU approves controversial copyright law MORE (N.H.) and Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineSherrod Brown says he's 'not actively considering' running for president The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — GOP again has momentum on Kavanaugh rollercoaster Poll: Kaine leads GOP challenger by 19 points in Va. Senate race 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 McConnellDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week GOP, Kavanaugh accuser struggle to reach deal 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) ManchinDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Cook Political Report moves Texas Senate race to ‘toss-up’ The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh MORE (W.Va.), Heidi HeitkampMary (Heidi) Kathryn HeitkampDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh Heitkamp knocks GOP challenger for 'disturbing' comments on Kavanaugh allegations 5 things to know about Trump's escalating trade war with China MORE (N.D.) and Joe DonnellyJoseph (Joe) Simon DonnellyDoug Jones to McConnell: Don't 'plow right through' with Kavanaugh The Memo: Tide turns on Kavanaugh McCaskill to oppose Kavanaugh nomination 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) MenendezDems urge tech companies to remove 3D-gun blueprints Dem senators introduce resolution calling on Trump to stop attacking the press Booming economy has Trump taking a well-deserved victory lap 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 CoatsDem lawmakers slam Trump’s declassification of Russia documents as ‘brazen abuse of power’ Nunes: Russia probe documents should be released before election The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Cuomo wins and Manafort plea deal 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 RosensteinFormer federal prosecutor joins Kavanaugh accuser's legal team Dem warns Trump: 'Obstruction of justice' to fire Rosenstein FBI group defends agents amid Trump’s attacks 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 CoonsJudiciary Democrat calls for additional witnesses to testify on Kavanaugh Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections      Sunday shows preview: White House officials on offensive in wake of anonymous NY Times op-ed MORE (D-Del.).

Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerEx-White House official revises statement to Mueller after Flynn guilty plea: report CNN editor: Booker's 'groping incident' 'different' from Kavanaugh allegation Poll: Most Massachusetts voters don't think Warren should run for president in 2020 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 CorkerPoll: More voters oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination than support it Ford opens door to testifying next week Police arrest nearly two dozen Kavanaugh protesters 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 TillersonSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Pompeo working to rebuild ties with US diplomats: report NYT says it was unfair on Haley curtain story 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.