Whatever the Senate might have wanted to focus on in April and May will now have to compete for time with a new priority thrust upon it by President Donald Trump.
Once senators got past the initial shock of Trump’s Twitter announcement Tuesday that he was ousting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, they quickly moved toward paving the way to debate and confirm CIA Director Mike Pompeo as Tillerson’s successor, as well as Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to lead that agency.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said he believes it is important for Pompeo to be confirmed to his new post before Trump meets with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un.
“I think we need a chief diplomat before the North Korea meeting,” the Texas Republican said.
Cornyn could not say how long it might take to get the new secretary of State and CIA director to their positions.
“It just depends on how much delay for delay’s sake we’re going to see on the nominations. They could be done rather expeditiously if there’s cooperation,” he said. “If there’s not, … then things take longer.”
The Senate is scheduled to be in recess the last week of March and the first week of April for Passover and Easter. The next break would be the first week in May. Trump’s personnel moves mean that two of the six session weeks over the next two months could easily be consumed with the senior national security nominations.
Watch: Trump, Touting Pompeo’s ‘Energy,’ Says He Clashed With Tillerson on Iran Deal
Promises and questions
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said that while he didn’t expect Tillerson’s firing, he also wasn’t surprised by it, adding he does not have a well-informed opinion yet of Pompeo. The Tennessee Republican had what he described as a “very good conversation” with the CIA director on Tuesday.
Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said he and other Foreign Relations members will likely seek answers from Pompeo on promises made during the Tillerson confirmation process but never delivered on.
He said that could include seeking the Trump administration’s strategies for dealing with Iran, Syria, Russia and North Korea.
“I think Secretary Tillerson unfortunately chose to focus on restructuring and slashing funding in the State Department, and that took some of his focus off of developing and delivering to the people of the United States, and to the Senate, a clear-eyed strategy for how to deal with these significant challenges,” Coons told reporters.
One difference from the Tillerson confirmation hearing will be the Foreign Relations panel’s top Democrat — New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez has since resumed his position, displacing Maryland’s Benjamin L. Cardin.
Menendez told reporters Tuesday that the State Department has lacked stability at a time when Trump's “bombast against diplomacy undermines the very essence of what our people can do abroad.”
Tillerson had been scheduled to testify Thursday before the Foreign Relations panel on the fiscal 2019 budget request as well as his reorganization plans, but that hearing was postponed.
Hiccups for Haspel
Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard M. Burr said Tuesday he believes Haspel is well-qualified and he would schedule her for committee consideration as soon as possible, but the current deputy CIA director is not without controversy.
South Carolina GOP Sen Lindsey Graham said Haspel will have to respond to questions about her past involvement in the use of “enhanced interrogation” during the George W. Bush administration, including, “Does she now understand that those techniques are not allowed?”
The most interesting question about Haspel’s confirmation process may be whether she can win over a Democrat from California and a Republican from Arizona.
Back when Sen. Dianne Feinstein was chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, she worked to stop Haspel from being elevated to lead the clandestine service. The California Democrat had been battling the CIA, where Haspel has worked since 1985, over the report her panel authored into the use of torture.
Feinstein said Tuesday she would need to meet with Haspel again.
“It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this,” the senator said. “To the best of my knowledge, she has been a good deputy director and I look forward to the opportunity to speak with her again.”
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, who remains in Arizona, noted that Pompeo committed to not allowing the CIA to return to the use of certain harsh interrogation practices.
“The American people now deserve the same assurances from Gina Haspel, whose career with the agency has intersected with the program of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on a number of occasions. The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history,” the Arizona Republican said. “Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process.”