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US Politics

Mike Pompeo risks rejection for secretary of state – despite his success with North Korea – as Republicans warn of dire consequences

Pompeo has been congratulated for his secret meetings with Kim Jong-un on behalf of the US, but concerns over his hawkishness and ‘anti-Muslim’ statements mean he may not get the job

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 4:53am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 April, 2018, 9:33pm

CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to be US secretary of state ran into trouble Wednesday, even as it emerged he had secretly met with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un on US President Donald Trump’s behalf.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared poised to vote to reject Pompeo after the top Democrat on the panel, Bob Menendez, announced his opposition.

Republicans said they would take the nomination to a vote by the entire Senate anyway, in a rarely used tactic they predicted would result in approval for Pompeo, the president’s choice for top diplomat.

“Whatever happens in that committee, Mike Pompeo will be confirmed in the Senate next week,” Republican Senator Tom Cotton said. 

Cotton warned a rejection would send a “a very bad sign” to other countries, especially North Korea, and “possibly set back the preparations, perhaps even the results” of the Trump-Kim summit being planned for May or June.

He also warned Democratic senators not to vote against Pompeo if they face tough re-election fights in states Trump won easily in 2016. He mentioned Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“If they do so – and they’re up for re-election – they may suffer the consequences,” said Cotton, an outspoken Trump supporter who blasted the committee as out of step with the rest of the Senate.

A Manchin aide declined to comment, a Heitkamp aide said she had not made a decision on Pompeo, and Donnelly’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

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The president himself lavished praise on his nominee – hours after confirming Pompeo’s trip early this month to meet the reclusive Kim, the latest in a series of revelations that have raised hopes of a breakthrough in the nuclear stand-off.

“I think Mike Pompeo is extraordinary,” Trump said. “I think he will go down as a great secretary of state.”

The president was equally effusive about Pompeo’s outreach to North Korea, saying he “had a great meeting with Kim Jong-un and got along with him really well, really great”.

“He is that kind of guy, he is really smart but he gets along with people.”

But a week after Pompeo underwent a five-hour grilling by the Senate committee, the unofficial vote count was 10-9 against him Wednesday, with one Republican, Senator Rand Paul, breaking with his party to oppose the nominee. 

One Democrat and one Republican senator remained undecided.

“I will cast a no vote for Director Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state,” Menendez, the panel’s senior Democrat, announced.

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In his confirmation hearing, Menendez said, “Director Pompeo did little to assuage my concerns about the administration’s deafening lack of strategic vision for any of our major global challenges.”

Menendez also cited Pompeo’s personal record, mentioning his “preference for military action” over diplomacy, and what Menendez called “egregious” statements against Muslims and equality for women and members of the LGBTQ community.

“I believe our nation’s top diplomat must be forthright, and, more critically, his past sentiments do not reflect our nation’s values, and are not acceptable for our nation’s top diplomat. The American people deserve better,” Menendez said.

Trump tapped the 54-year-old Pompeo to become secretary of state after firing Rex Tillerson – with whom the president was frequently at odds.

Pompeo, meanwhile, has used his year as the country’s top spy to build a close relationship with Trump.

Critics, however, say that Pompeo has tailored intelligence reports to please the president, rather than provide a straightforward picture of US security issues.

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They also say that Pompeo’s past statements show a preference for military action over diplomacy.

Cotton rejected that, citing Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang.

“Now that he has actually sat down with Kim Jong-un, I think that is the best evidence that he is committed to diplomacy.”

Passing the nomination in a full Senate vote is not assured, however, and Pompeo himself was on Capitol Hill Wednesday to lobby for support from Democrats.

Republicans have a slight edge over Democrats in the Senate, 51 to 47. Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine, both independent, caucus with the Democrats. 

But with Rand Paul opposed to Pompeo, and Arizona Senator John McCain hospitalised in a battle with brain cancer and possibly unable to vote, the Republicans would need some Democratic support.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders urged Democrats Wednesday to “put politics aside, acknowledge our national security is too important, and confirm Mike Pompeo”.

Additional reporting by Reuters.