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Trading Snarl for Smile, Pompeo Makes Case to Lead State Dept.

April 12, 2018

His testimony in both tone and substance was so different from his past statements and profile as a Tea Party congressman from Wichita, Kan., that Democrats on the committee were left puzzled and, almost despite themselves, delighted. Gone was any hint of the warmonger his critics have portrayed him as.

At one point, Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, turned to Senator Bob Corker, the committee’s chairman and a Tennessee Republican, and said: “Mr. Chairman, if I could, I would like to compliment the nominee for giving concise answers. It’s refreshing to have a nominee who really answers our questions.”


Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, asked about Mr. Pompeo’s previous denunciations of American Muslim leaders for what he called their “silence” in response to a terrorist attack.Credit Tom Brenner/The New York Times

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, summarized the Democrats’ dilemma.

“As we close here, I’m trying to think about which of the Mike Pompeos that I’m asked to vote on,” he said. “Is it the one that today said the solution to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons is through diplomacy, which I would agree, or is it the one that said the only way to do that in my judgment is a regime change in a speech of 2015?”

Mr. Corker promised to “avidly support” Mr. Pompeo’s confirmation. But with Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, making clear during the hearing that he still opposed many of Mr. Pompeo’s views, the nomination will not pass the committee without the vote of at least one Democrat.

He is still expected to pass the full Senate, however. And nothing he said on Thursday is likely to change that.

In a week when Mr. Trump issued a fusillade of tweets about Syria, Russia and China that set a new standard for contradictory and inconsistent policy positions, the senators asked whether Mr. Pompeo would push back against the president’s worst instincts.

“While at times the president may act or speak impulsively,” Mr. Corker said, “we have also seen that good counsel has led the president to evolve, from my perspective, to a much better place on a number of important issues.”


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If confirmed, Mr. Pompeo would be the Trump administration’s second secretary of state in less than 15 months. In his opening statement, Mr. Pompeo signaled that he planned to harvest a forceful diplomacy.

He said he would take a tough line against Russia. And as planning was underway at the White House and the Pentagon for a potential missile strike on Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians, Mr. Pompeo, a former Army captain, stressed that “war is always the last resort.”

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“I would prefer achieving the president’s foreign policy goals with unrelenting diplomacy rather than by sending young men and women to war,” he said.

Despite some surprising comity, the hearing produced tense moments. Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, asked a series of pointed questions about Mr. Pompeo’s previous denunciations of American Muslim leaders for what he called their “silence” in response to a terrorist attack.

Mr. Pompeo replied that he believed Islamic religious leaders had a particular “opportunity” to denounce terrorism by Muslims, rather than a responsibility.

Mr. Booker agreed that “silence in the face of injustice lends strength to that injustice.” However, he took issue with “saying certain Americans — I don’t care if it’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Muslims that serve on my staff — if they’re in positions of leadership,” they “suddenly have a special obligation.”

The senator then pivoted to ask if Mr. Pompeo had denounced anti-Muslim news media personalities he had appeared with, or whether he stood by comments he had made as a congressman that gay sex and same-sex marriage were a “perversion.”

Mr. Pompeo said that he still believed same-sex marriage was inappropriate, but that he supported gay couples in the government. “My respect for every individual regardless of sexual orientation is the same,” he said.

Flagging morale at the State Department was also front and center. Senator Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, noted that Mr. Tillerson had left the department in “a blue funk.”


Code Pink protesters interrupted the hearing, denouncing what they said was Mr. Pompeo’s support for war.Credit Lawrence Jackson for The New York Times

Mr. Pompeo vowed to raise the department’s morale. He diverged from Mr. Tillerson’s vision for the nation’s diplomatic corps, telling Senator Todd Young, Republican of Indiana, that he did not foresee any slowing of its mission or reduction in personnel.

In one prominent example, Mr. Pompeo suggested that he would return some of the American diplomats who were withdrawn from Cuba last year after they were sickened in what some suspect was a covert attack with Havana’s knowledge. Mr. Trump has tightened restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba.

“Consistent with keeping folks safe, we will build out a team there,” Mr. Pompeo told Senator Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico, also suggesting that he would push for increased agricultural sales in Cuba.

Two sitting senators and former Senator Bob Dole, the longtime Republican leader from Kansas, introduced Mr. Pompeo to the committee and spoke highly of his credentials.

Mr. Dole, 94, warmed up the panel. “I can see all you people up there,” he said. “I can’t see very well, so you look good.”

Senator Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, assured his peers that Mr. Pompeo was transparent and a “natural fit” for the job.