The White House circled the wagons Wednesday around CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s nomination to become secretary of State, arguing vulnerable red-state Democrats will feel “consequences” in November if they vote against him.
The Trump administration dispatched Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas to argue Pompeo is highly qualified for the top State Department position and to press Democrats running for re-election in states won by President Donald Trump to vote in favor of his nomination.
The vote-counting on Pompeo comes amid reports of the CIA director’s secret trip to North Korea to meet with that country’s leader, Kim Jong Un. At his confirmation hearing, Pompeo did not disclose the trip to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Cotton, on a call arranged by the White House, challenged several Senate Democrats by name, including Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Doug Jones of Alabama. The hawkish GOP senator, who described himself as a friend of Pompeo from their days in the House, urged those Senate Democrats not to “conspire” with Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul in trying to block the nomination.
Watch: Senators Press Pompeo at Confirmation Hearing
With the Foreign Relations panel appearing on course to vote down the nomination, Cotton slammed its Democrats and Paul before they have voted. He dubbed them “two-bit Talleyrands,” a reference to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, a French politician and diplomat in the late 1700s and early 1800s whose colleagues often distrusted him.
“Whatever happens in that committee, he’ll be confirmed next week,” Cotton said confidently, a line he repeated throughout the half-hour call. Even if the committee votes against the nomination, it could be advanced to the floor, just without a recommendation.
Democrats could choose to approve Pompeo for secretary of State with the same kind of “large bipartisan” margin that others like former Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts got when he was nominated for the same job, Cotton said. Or they can “play partisan games.”
If they choose the latter, the GOP senator warned, vulnerable Democrats in states Trump won by a “landslide” could feel “the consequences.”
Several Republicans key to foreign affairs issues told reporters before the White House call they are confident Pompeo will get enough votes on the floor to move him from Langley to Foggy Bottom.
“I realize it’s not going to be overwhelming,” Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker said when asked to handicap a floor vote. “But I do, I do.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Appropriations State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee, agreed, saying he hopes the dust-up this week ahead of the committee vote was “just a low moment.”
All indications are a floor vote will be, as Corker predicted, very close as more and more Democrats announce their opposition.
Paul said his office is working to set up a meeting with Pompeo, after the president on Wednesday asked Paul to meet with him.
Paul said he is agreeing to meet with Pompeo only because of his “respect” for Trump and declined to say if he may support him in committee or on the floor. Paul said his main concern about Pompeo is that he doesn’t share Trump’s foreign policy views.
“It would really take Director Pompeo showing that he really does agree with the President’s vision that the Iraq war was a mistake,” Paul said.
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to Trump, noted on the call that Pompeo received 66 votes on the floor for his nomination to become CIA director last year. She argued he can “hit the ground running and is ready to go,” adding he has “earned the trust of the president” and there is “no legitimate reason” for Democrats’ opposition.
Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Robert Menendez announced his opposition to the nomination on Wednesday morning, raising the likelihood the panel will not support Pompeo for the top diplomat role.
The New Jersey Democrat faulted Pompeo for, among other things, opting against disclosing his recent trip to North Korea during private meetings.
“I don’t expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be secretary of State, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit,” Menendez said in a statement.
But Corker disagreed, telling reporters a few hours later that Pompeo had an obligation to tell senators about his meeting with Kim only “if someone asked him about it,” but “nobody asked him about it, to my knowledge. I don’t see it as a problem.” And Cotton said Pompeo’s meeting with the North Korean dictator should show Democrats he is “committed to diplomacy.”
Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told reporters Wednesday that Pompeo should be disqualified for not being straight with senators during his Foreign Relations confirmation hearing. He said the nominee was asked “three times” if the president requested he “go to [former FBI Director James B. Comey] and ask that they back off Michael Flynn,” referring to the president’s first national security adviser who is a key player in the special counsel’s Russia probe.
“He gave three different answers — none of which were consistent with the others,” Wyden said. “I think the American people deserve answers to those kinds of questions.”
Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, who acted as the panel’s ranking member for several years, also announced his opposition on Wednesday, saying, “I do not believe Mr. Pompeo will be an independent voice in advising the president, nor an advocate for leading our allies and friends around the world in support of the international norms and values that protect America and enhance our prosperity and security.”
Conway, as she often does, defended the president against that charge, arguing Trump “values” dissenting opinions and seeks “many different pieces of advice” before making a decision.
Cotton offered a similar take. “Mike Pompeo always speaks his mind,” he said. “I am confident he will always give the president his very best advice.”
Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.