CIA Director Mike Pompeo made all the right noises — well, most of the right noises — during his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The former representative from Kansas and favorite of President Trump promised to exhaust diplomacy before turning to a military solution to North Korea’s nuclear threat. He held out some hope that Trump might not walk away from the Iran nuclear agreement next month if the U.S. and its European allies were close to terms on a deal to improve the accord. He acknowledged that the Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and said the U.S. needed to “push back in each place we confront them.”
There was even an olive branch to his former colleagues in Congress in the form of an endorsement of the idea that it would be good for Congress to endorse U.S. military action in Syria. (That doesn’t mean Pompeo thinks a new Authorization for Use of Military Force is needed to justify the current deployment of U.S. forces in Syria or the strike Trump is contemplating to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons.)
All in all, Pompeo’s hearing was relatively smooth sailing, a consequence perhaps of what the New York Times referred to as a “charm offensive.” It’s also true that Pompeo, considered a firebrand in his days in Congress, seemed the model of sober reflection compared with the president who appointed him. In alluding to the possibility of a U.S. strike against Syria, Pompeo was guarded in his language. Trump tweeted Wednesday: “Russia vows to shoot down all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ ”
Trump has said that he and Pompeo are on the “same wavelength.” Senators seem to hope that Pompeo will take advantage of that fact to dial Trump down.
Pompeo did run into some aggressive questioning at the hearing on three subjects. One had nothing to do with foreign policy: his statement that he likely wouldn’t resign if Trump fired special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The other two — on troubling past comments about Muslims and same-sex marriage — mixed domestic culture-war politics and diplomacy.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) pressed Pompeo about his comment that Muslims have a “special obligation” to speak up about terrorism and about his opposition to same-sex marriage. Pompeo replied that he meant that Muslims had “an opportunity” to combat terrorism and that his record of treating people of all faiths with dignity had been “exquisite.” He said he treated all couples within the CIA, gay and straight, “with the exact same set of rights.”
Pompeo’s confirmation isn’t a sure thing, but Democrats who under other circumstances might have opposed him may reluctantly support this nominee because of the possibility that he might be able to retrain his volatile boss. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee, said that sometimes “good counsel has led the president to evolve.” That’s a polite way of saying that, as secretary of State, Pompeo might be able to keep Trump, and the country, out of trouble and maybe out of war.