Mike Pompeo, facing tough questions Thursday in a Senate confirmation hearing for secretary of State, called for using "relentless diplomacy" to avoid war but came under fire from Democrats who questioned whether he would stand up to President Trump when necessary to restore American influence around the world.
Pompeo, 54, served six years as a tea party Republican member of Congress from Kansas before Trump picked him early last year to lead the CIA. Given the turmoil in the president's Cabinet, he kept a low public profile but was known as a fierce Trump loyalist in a spy service that prides itself on being apolitical.
Pompeo sought to mollify his Democratic critics in an often contentious five-hour hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that did little to undermine his chances for confirmation by the full Senate, where he has numerous allies.
If he is confirmed as the nation's top diplomat, Pompeo said, his "first priority" would be to revitalize the demoralized State Department after a year of painful staff cuts and high-level departures under Rex Tillerson, whom Trump fired last month.
"I'll do my part to end the vacancies," Pompeo said. He vowed to foster a State Department culture that "finds its swagger once again. We will be effective, expeditionary, diverse and successful in fulfilling our mission."
The barrel-chested West Point graduate and veteran of the Gulf War pushed back on criticism that he is a war hawk and hard-liner. No one "understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war like someone who has served in uniform," he said. "It's the last resort. It must always be so."
Pompeo, a sharp critic of the 2015 nuclear disarmament accord with Iran, acknowledged that Iran is complying with terms of the deal. But he went back and forth as to whether he would seek to fix what he called "its egregious flaws," or withdraw and then try to renegotiate it — even though European allies and Iran have rejected that possibility.
"If confirmed it will be an immediate personal priority to work with [U.S.] partners to see if such a fix is achievable," he said. Trump has vowed to withdraw from the deal next month unless it is revised.
Pompeo vowed to toughen U.S. sanctions that have targeted Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and other senior government officials. Moscow "continues to act aggressively, enabled by years of soft policy toward that aggression. That's now over," Pompeo said. Russia, he added, "has not gotten the message."
If confirmed, Pompeo also will help plan a proposed high-stakes nuclear summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a task he was already immersed in as CIA director. Trump said last week that the meeting would occur in late May or early June.
"No one is under any illusions" that a summit would produce a comprehensive agreement to strip North Korea of its nuclear weapons, Pompeo said. But it could "set us down the course to achieve a diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need."
Pompeo said he read CIA histories of previous failed U.S. negotiations with North Korea and is "confident that we will not repeat the mistakes" of the past. "President Trump isn't one to play games at the negotiating table — and I won't be either," he added.
Pressed by Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), Pompeo also denied that he had ever called for overthrowing the North Korean government. "I have never advocated for regime change," he said. "I am not advocating for regime change."
He also pledged to rebuild the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba, which has dropped to a skeleton staff. President Obama sought to end half a century of hostilities with Havana by reestablishing diplomatic ties in 2015, but Trump has reversed course and made it more difficult for travel and business.
Democrats used the hearing to criticize Trump's foreign policy as erratic, and urged Pompeo to push back when necessary.
"Will you enable President Trump's worst instincts?" asked Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee. "Will you stand up to [Trump] and say, 'No, you are wrong,' or will you be a yes man?"
Pompeo said he would express his views forcefully but carry out the president's policies once decisions were made.
He said that he shared Trump's view that the 2015 Paris climate accord placed "an undue burden" on the United States, and that he supported Trump's decision to withdraw from it.
He said he has been interviewed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. He said he believed the Russians meddled in the campaign, something Trump has been reluctant to do.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pressed Pompeo on past statements that critics called anti-Muslim, as well as his views on gay rights. Pompeo responded that he personally opposes same-sex marriage but that he respected equality in the workplace and would not tolerate discrimination against Muslims or gay people.
Pompeo sidestepped a question about Trump's harsh rhetoric toward Mexico, saying only that he hoped to develop a relationship that "benefits both countries, especially ours."
One Republican on the Senate committee, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, has said he will oppose Pompeo's nomination because of his past defense of harsh CIA interrogation tactics that critics called torture.
Unless Pompeo gains the vote of at least one Democrat on the panel, his nomination probably would move to the full Senate "without recommendation." He is likely to win confirmation there, but not without more debate.
Several protesters attended the hearing and occasionally interrupted. But Pompeo's Republican support runs deep.
"Mike Pompeo is a proven defender of U.S. national security interests, and I have full confidence in his ability to lead the State Department as well as he has led the CIA," said Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), a committee member.
Trump fired Tillerson via Twitter on March 13 after the two repeatedly clashed over policy and style. By contrast, Trump has said he and Pompeo are "always on the same wavelength."
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2:45 p.m.: This article was updated after the hearing ended.
11:05 a.m.: This article was updated to add additional details from the confirmation hearing.
8:40 a.m.: This article was updated to include quotes from the confirmation hearing.