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Pompeo Faces Tough Questioning In Secretary Of State Confirmation Hearing

Updated at 4:50 p.m. ET

Mike Pompeo, currently the director of the CIA, testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee today as President Trump's nominee to be the next secretary of state. Pompeo faced a battery of questions not only on matters of diplomacy but also on whether he is willing to stand up to the president.

Throughout, Pompeo downplayed his reputation as a hawk, saying that his time in uniform had given him a dread of war.

"War is always the last resort," he said. "I would prefer achieving the president's foreign policy goals with unrelenting diplomacy."

The hearing comes amid a range of pressing foreign policy questions for the United States, including how to respond to a suspected chemical attack in Syria, how to handle relations with North Korea, and how to counter various aggressions from Russia.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked Pompeo whether he agreed with a number of hawkish statements toward North Korea, Cuba and Iraq by John Bolton, Trump's new national security adviser. Merkley explained that he was asking about Bolton's statements because Americans want to know whether "a war Cabinet of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo" is being assembled, moving the country toward "another poorly thought-through mistake like our war on Iraq."

"I've been part of this Cabinet," Pompeo replied, "and I can tell you ... every day at the forefront of our mind is how can we find solutions that achieve the American objective but avoid us having to put a single American in harm's way."

Pompeo faced many questions about North Korea. He pointed to diplomatic efforts currently underway and said he has "read the CIA histories of previous negotiations with the North Koreans, and am 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."

Democratic senators focused on whether Pompeo would avoid unnecessary wars and whether he is willing to be a voice of dissent when needed.

Then there's Russia, which he said has been "enabled by years of soft policy."

"That's now over," Pompeo said, praising the Trump administration's actions toward Russia, including sanctions and the expulsion of Russian diplomats and intelligence officers from the U.S.

Later, he added that in Syria "a handful of weeks ago, the Russians met their match. A couple hundred Russians were killed." He seemed to be referring to a February clash with U.S.-led forces, the details of which have been murky.

Pompeo said he believes the president has the authority to strike Syria in response to the suspected chemical attack.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, questioned Pompeo on his opinion of the Paris climate agreement and whether he stood by an earlier statement that the "science is inconclusive."

Pompeo didn't respond to the latter question, but he said he shared the president's view that the Paris accords place "an undue burden" on the U.S.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who has vowed to oppose Pompeo's nomination, questioned why the United States is still in Afghanistan. Pompeo responded that he thought Trump's course of action there has been the right one — that the U.S. has the goal of leaving but can't do so until there is more stability in the country.

Pompeo highlighted his aim of bringing new energy to the State Department, which suffered from high vacancies and low morale under Rex Tillerson, whose firing Trump announced in a tweet last month.

But Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, says that is simply the baseline expectation for the role.

"Let me be clear, members of this Committee expect every Secretary of State to champion the department," Menendez said in his opening statement, in which he criticized the president's "erratic approach" to foreign policy.

"As our nation's top diplomat, will you champion diplomacy and offer actual plans?" Mendendez continued. "Will you stand up to President Trump and advise him differently when he is wrong? Or will you be a 'yes' man?"

Menendez questioned Pompeo about a report of a private conversation between him, Trump and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats. Pompeo refused to discuss his conversation with the president, but the nominee said he had spoken with special counsel Robert Mueller.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Cory Booker, both Democrats, pressed Pompeo on statements he has made about Muslims and LGBT rights. Pompeo said that his record showed he had treated all CIA officers with dignity and respect and that he would do the same at the State Department.

Ann Wright, a protester from the organization CodePink, was removed from the room by security officers near the beginning of the hearing after shouting. Wright is an Army veteran and former diplomat.

Trump and Tillerson did not always agree on major foreign policy decisions — a factor that won Tillerson some measure of approval from Democrats.

To prepare for his confirmation hearing, Pompeo sought the advice of previous secretaries of state — including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The outreach to Clinton is especially notable, as Pompeo called her "morally reprehensible" following the Benghazi attacks, while he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

A spokesman for committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., says the committee hopes to hold a vote on the nomination the week of April 23.

NPR's Michele Kelemen contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.
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