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Pompeo’s diplomatic foray falls flat

Mike Pompeo had his best chance yet Thursday to win over skeptical Democrats. But after hours of tough questions at his confirmation hearing, he had changed no new minds in his bid to become secretary of state.

Amid a series of difficult Senate confirmation fights facing President Donald Trump, including for new chiefs of the CIA and VA, Pompeo’s nomination was supposed to be the easy one.

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But despite myriad global challenges and a desire to repair a department upended by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Democrats aren’t ready to make things so simple for Trump or Pompeo. Particularly when it came to Russia, North Korea and Iran, Pompeo’s answers left them cold.

“I wanted to understand what he, as the secretary of state — if he got confirmed — would be advocating as the strategy on these issues,” Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Foreign Relations Committee’s top Democrat, said in an interview after the hearing.

“It doesn’t mean the president would accept it … but at least I would understand what it is that he’s thinking, what’s his global vision,” Menendez added. “And I walked away without really understanding any sense of his global vision.”

This sentiment, shared broadly by Democrats after a contentious confirmation hearing, doesn’t mean Pompeo’s nomination is doomed. But he’s in danger of squeaking through with what would prove to be a historically partisan vote count for a State Department leader — potentially undermining his start at Foggy Bottom and signaling Trump’s other nominees are in grave jeopardy.

Republicans largely praised Pompeo, whose nomination is on track to end up before the full Senate by the end of the month, according to Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

And the pugnaciously liberal Menendez was never considered high on the list of gettable votes for Pompeo. But more worrisome for the GOP may be comments from Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, two Democrats on the committee who voted for him as CIA director last year.

Installing Pompeo at State involves “a very different mission” than leading CIA, Shaheen said in an interview, adding that “even though I think he was forthcoming on a number of questions that I asked him, there are some areas that I just disagree with him on.”

“I am very worried about whether he has a pro-diplomacy orientation,” Kaine told reporters after the hearing, adding that Pompeo’s answers to key questions “didn’t particularly satisfy me.”

Trump administration officials had hoped that Pompeo would get support from some of the 15 Senate Democratic caucus members who voted for his CIA nomination. But Kaine echoed Shaheen in drawing a sharp distinction between a vote for Pompeo, a veteran intelligence committee member during his years in the House, at CIA and promoting him to State.

While “I have not had cause to regret” supporting Pompeo’s CIA nomination, Kaine said, “I walked in with that worry” about tapping him as the nation’s chief diplomat “and he did not make that worry go away.”

With Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposed to Pompeo, Corker faces a thorny task in steering the nominee to the floor before a scheduled recess at the end of the month. The Foreign Relations panel is divided 11-10, meaning that if Democrats unite alongside Paul in opposition, they would deal Pompeo a negative recommendation.

The committee also could take no action on the nomination, which is more common than an unfavorable vote, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Nonetheless, Corker said after the confirmation hearing that he hopes to bring Pompeo to a committee vote early in the week of April 23 to tee up consideration by the Senate later that week. Even if a majority in the committee votes against Pompeo, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can bring the nomination to the floor.

“If I look at the body language in there, I think people were favorably impressed,” the chairman told reporters. “I realize that for many Democrats, a vote for Pompeo is a proxy for the president, which makes it difficult, but I think there will be bipartisan support for him.”

That bipartisan support may prove difficult to come by on the committee but easier to win in the full chamber.

Donald Trump is pictured. | AP Photo

Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have yet to decide on Pompeo. None of the four sit on the Foreign Relations panel, a status shared by other red-state swing votes such as Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.). Senators often wait to announce their positions if they don’t sit on the panel considering the nomination.

Pompeo left Democrats particularly frustrated with his evasion of questions about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

He sidestepped an opportunity to disavow Trump’s description of the Mueller investigation as “an attack on our country” and gave seemingly contradictory answers about a private conversation last year where Trump reportedly raised concerns about then-FBI Director James Comey’s conduct of the Russia inquiry.

“There were more questions created than answered today, so my sense is that he didn’t come out of today’s hearing stronger in the Democratic caucus,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told reporters.

Murphy did echo other Democrats in hailing Pompeo’s vow to restore confidence in diplomatic ranks after his predecessor’s ill-fated attempt to restructure State left the rank-and-file adrift.

“Listen, I do think Pompeo believes in the State Department much more than Tillerson did, and I think he’s legitimately concerned about the morale issue,” Murphy said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is pictured. | Getty Images

Several liberals in the caucus announced their opposition to the nominee after the confirmation hearing, including Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). And Menendez, the top Democrat on the panel, found plenty of fodder in Pompeo’s answers to stoke concern about the nominee, sending rapid-response notes that pointed out his seemingly contradictory responses on Iran and North Korea.

For instance, Pompeo said Thursday that “I want to fix” the Iran nuclear deal — a notable shift from his declaration after Trump’s 2016 victory that “I look forward to rolling back” the pact which senators in both parties support preserving. Pompeo also said Thursday, “I have never advocated for regime change” in Pyongyang, despite quipping last year that “given the history of the CIA, I’m just not going to talk about it” if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un mysteriously disappears.

But Republicans have reason for confidence in a united front aside from Paul. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said Thursday that she is “inclined to” support him, and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said Pompeo “did pretty well.”

Flake, a member of the Foreign Relations panel, indicated that he would hold off on deciding on his vote until he gets answers from Pompeo to a series of written questions. And he held off on speculating about the nominee’s broader chances.

“We’ll see — I couldn’t get much of a read on Democrats on that,” Flake said.

Burgess Everett contributed to this report.

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