© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez Weighs In On Confirmation Hearing For Mike Pompeo


President Trump's nominee for secretary of state tried to seal the deal on Capitol Hill today. CIA Director Mike Pompeo sat before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for several hours. Pompeo, though well-known to Washington after years as a congressman and President Trump's CIA director, introduced himself to the committee as just a regular guy.


MIKE POMPEO: When I was a teenager, I was an employee of the month at Baskin-Robbins not once but twice. I'm a movie buff. I have a soft spot for my golden retrievers.

CORNISH: Pompeo's transition from CIA director to would-be secretary of state comes as the president mulls military action in Syria and a meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and many of the lawmakers' questions focused on those diplomatic hotspots.


RAND PAUL: Does the president have the constitutional authority to bomb Assad's forces?


UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR #1: Is there some concern that exiting the Iran agreement might play poorly?


UNIDENTIFIED SENATOR #2: Would you agree with Secretary Mattis that North Korea is the most urgent security threat the United States faces?

CORNISH: New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez is the ranking member on the committee. He asked in his opening statement whether Mike Pompeo would be willing to challenge the president when he disagreed with him.


BOB MENENDEZ: Will you stand up to President Trump and say, no, you're wrong in that view, Mr. President? Or will you be a yes man?

CORNISH: Senator Menendez is with us now. Senator, welcome to the program.

MENENDEZ: Good to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: So did you get a satisfactory answer on that question of whether Pompeo would stand up to President Trump?

MENENDEZ: No, I didn't, and that's one of the main concerns that I think many members have - whether Director Pompeo will be someone who will embolden and ultimately facilitate the president's worst instincts or whether he'll be a brake on them internally and try to convince them of a course that seeks to employ diplomacy more than a potential act of war.

CORNISH: But Pompeo claimed that he would engage in forceful diplomacy. Did that answer mean anything to you?

MENENDEZ: Well, I mean, in the general term that he'd be engaged in forceful diplomacy, certainly it's good to hear that. But when you ask him specifically about, well, what would be the strategy that you would advocate with President Trump on Iran, on Russia, on China, on North Korea, he basically did not have an answer - the elements of what a strategy would be. We need a steady hand, and I didn't get a sense from Director Pompeo about how he would advocate as he relates to any of those hotspots in the world.

CORNISH: At the same time, isn't it better to have a state department with a leader that has the president's ear compared to what happened under Rex Tillerson where people talked about diplomacy having a diminished role and where there was a difference of public opinion on some of these key issues?

MENENDEZ: Well, there's no question that whoever the secretary of state is has to be in sync with the president. That's undoubtedly true. But at the end of the day, with a president that acts by tweets and taunts, that is impulsive versus strategic, you have to have someone in the administration and, in this case, the chief foreign policy adviser who is the secretary of state, providing that stability, providing that strategy. And the absence of him being able to enunciate it is really a cause for concern for us.

CORNISH: So you want close but not too close.

MENENDEZ: Well, I want close, and I want clarity. I want to know what you're going to be saying to the president of the United States. I just could not glean that from the answers of Director Pompeo today. And credibility is a big part of this, and my opening question, which was about a meeting at the White House between himself and Dan Coats and the president where the president sent everybody else out and then went on and on about what was going on with the Russian investigation and his unwillingness to answer the questions about that meeting and what he was asked by the president to do...

CORNISH: Well, Mike Pompeo did answer that question. He said that he was never asked to do anything improper by the president. He said he was not asked to do anything improper.

MENENDEZ: That's not quite the case. If you look at the transcript, which I read to him afterwards later on, he first said, I'm not going to talk about what happened there. Then he later said that, I can't recall what the president talked about and asked. And then in a more overarching comment, he said the president has never asked me to do anything that I consider improper. It wasn't specific to that particular meeting, a meeting that I think, based upon his own testimony - he said that in fact he has been interviewed by special counsel Mueller. And I asked him what that questioning was by the special counsel, and he said he wasn't going to speak to it even though I think he has no prohibition to speak to it.

CORNISH: We've heard from liberal activist groups who say they want Democrats to vote against this nominee. Will you block this nomination?

MENENDEZ: Well, we're still going to evaluate not just the transcript of everything he had to say today, but there is going to be a wide range of questions for the record which we couldn't get to in the several hours of hearing. I intend to write special counsel Mueller today as to whether or not there's any prohibition on him answering the questions. If there's not, I want to press that. Those will all be part of elements of understanding whether or not Director Pompeo deserves the support or whether he deserves a rejection of the committee.

CORNISH: So you don't have an answer for those groups yet.

MENENDEZ: Not yet. I mean, I take the nomination process seriously. I don't have a knee-jerk reaction to it. But I want to get to the truth and an understanding of what this nominee is. And as I said in my closing statements, I'm not sure which Mike Pompeo is coming before the committee - the one who talked about regime change in Iran, the one who talked about regime change in North Korea, the one who didn't respect the rights of Muslims, LGBT community and others in his comments in the past or the one who now speaks in a different way before the committee. That's something to be ascertained.

CORNISH: Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey - he's a ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.