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Senators challenge Secretary of State nominee Pompeo on Syria, North Korea, Iran, Russia

In this April 9, 2018, photo, Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo leaves a meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump's decision to fire former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last month created a vacancy at the top of the U.S. government at a time when the administration is faced with at least four foreign policy crises requiring immediate attention.

For more than five hours Thursday, senators on the Foreign Relations Committee grilled Mike Pompeo, the acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency and President Trump's nominee to be the nation's top diplomat on how he will respond to the near-term challenges the United States must deal with in the coming days and weeks regarding Syria, North Korea, Iran and Russia.

Pompeo also faced tough questions on his reputation. On Thursday morning, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told Circa he is concerned about the Trump administration's commitment to soft power, and said he would be carefully assessing whether Pompeo "really believes in vigorous diplomacy."

During the Foreign Relations Committee hearing, lawmakers brought up Pompeo's past statements on foreign policy matters while serving in Congress and as CIA director, statements that earned him a reputation as a hardliner and war hawk.

In his opening remarks, the former Army captain and West Point graduate directly addressed the issue, disputing the "hawk" label.

"There's no one like someone who served in uniform who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war," he said. "It's the last resort and it must always be so."

SYRIA

In recent days, President Trump signaled he was preparing a response to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian backers to retaliate for the latest chemical weapons attack in a rebel-held suburb outside of Damascus.

While Trump initially gave himself a 24 to 48-hour timeframe to make a decision on how to proceed, he has since walked that back, tweeting Thursday morning an attack on Syria "Could be very soon or not so soon at all!"

Senators on both sides of the aisle raised concerns that the president plans to engage the Assad regime militarily without seeking congressional approval first.

Asked by numerous lawmakers whether it would be lawful for Trump to carry out a limited strike on Syria without a declaration of war, Pompeo said the consensus from prior Republican and Democratic administrations is that it would. "The president has the domestic authority" to carry out a limited strike without seeking prior authorization from Congress, Pompeo asserted.

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky rebuked the nominee, saying, "I take bjection to the idea that the president can do to war when he wants, where he wants."

Paul was joined by Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut who told Pompeo, "to the extent there is not an identifiable constraint on Article 2 powers, then we [Congress] are all out of the business of declaring war."

Later this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will release a draft of an authorization for the use of military force and may hold hearings on the subject.

Other senators pressed Pompeo to clarify the president's plans and intentions regarding Syria. In the past three weeks, Trump has taken contradictory positions, alternately saying U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State in Syria would be leaving "very soon" and this past week threatening an imminent attack on Assad.

In his written testimony, Pompeo stated that Syria poses a threat to human rights, U.S. national security and regional security "and it deserves an increasingly severe response." However, Pompeo was unable to discuss the administration's plans and intentions for Syria any further, citing his acting role as CIA director and involvement in that "live discussion."

NORTH KOREA

This week, President Trump confirmed that he plans to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un either at the end of May or the beginning of June. According to reports, the CIA has played a key role brokering that meeting even before Pompeo was chosen to succeed Tillerson.

Faced with criticism that the face-to-face between Trump and Kim is premature, Pompeo said there is work being done to prepare for the high-stakes meeting, adding the nuclear threat from North Korea "is the number one priority" for the Trump administration.

Pompeo clarified the administration's rationale for holding the Trump-Kim summit, which he said is only the beginning of a difficult diplomatic process. He stated, the goal of the summit "is to develop an agreement with the North Korean leadership such that [North Korea] will step away from its effort to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons, completely and verifiably."

In the event diplomacy fails, Pompeo acknowledged that a military option would be on the table.

"I can imagine times when America would need to take a response that moved past diplomacy," he said.

He further stated that the United States has "an awfully long way to go" before exhausting its diplomatic options and seeks to continue the "maximum pressure campaign" using international partnerships and economic tools to achieve U.S. goals "without ever having to put one of our men and women in harm's way."

Some senators referred to Pompeo's previous statements as CIA director suggesting there was a way to "separate" the Kim regime from its nuclear program. Asked how his previous comments should be understood, Pompeo stated, "I have never advocated for regime change...I am not advocating for regime change."

Pompeo was also pressed to defend President Trump's latest tariffs and threats of tariffs against China, North Korea's strongest ally and as such, a key partner in pressuring Pyongyang to come to the negotiating table. The tariffs on China, he said, "didn't upset the applecart" or stop them from working with the United States on the North Korea threat.

IRAN

In exactly one month, President Trump will face another deadline to certify the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite his promise on the campaign trail to tear up the nuclear deal on his first day in office, Donald Trump has recertified Iran's compliance with the agreement on two occasions already.

However, he signaled in January that unless the other four parties, Germany, France, the U.K. and Russia, could renegotiate, he would unilaterally pull the United States out of the JCPOA on May 12.

Pompeo has repeatedly, publicly expressed his disdain for the Iranian nuclear deal. As a member of Congress, Pompeo openly spoke of U.S. military option to wipe out Iran's nuclear capability, as President Barack Obama's administration was negotiating the JCPOA. At an event in 2014, Pompeo said it would take "under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity," adding, "This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition force."

When asked about the upcoming deadline for President Trump to recertify the nuclear deal, Pompeo failed to give a clear response. He said alternately that the information he has seen as CIA director confirms that Iran is in compliance with the agreement, while also suggesting that Trump could pull out of the agreement but still renegotiate "even after May 12."

Pompeo said he is confident President Trump will discuss the issue with the leaders of France and Germany when they visit Washington later this month.

Ultimately, Pompeo argued time is on America's side when it comes to Iran's nuclear ambitions. "Iran wasn't racing to a weapon before the deal. There is no indication that I'm aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon today."

RUSSIA

Some senators renewed their criticism of President Trump for being too soft on Russia during his time in office, pointing to the president's reluctance to impose sanctions against the Kremlin that were approved overwhelmingly by bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate.

Pompeo defended his own record on Russia and that of the administration, telling senators, "I take a backseat to no one with my views of the threat that is presented to America from Russia."

As secretary of state, he assured lawmakers that "this administration will continue, as it has for the past 15 months, to take real actions, to push back to reset the deterrence relationship with respect to Russia."

In a shocking admission, Pompeo also acknowledged that "a couple hundred Russians were killed" during a U.S. anti-ISIS operation in Syria in February. The casualty details of that Special Forces mission had previous not been disclosed.

Some Democrats also used the confirmation hearing to raise concerns about the special counsel investigation into alleged collusion between Trump and the Russian government. One Democratic senator asked if Pompeo would resign from the administration if Trump were to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller.

Pompeo declined, saying he believes his "obligation to serve as America's senior diplomat will be more important at increased times of political domestsic turmoil."

THE MAN & THE STATE

If confirmed, Pompeo will take control of a department that has been wracked with demoralization, chronic under-staffing, high-level resignations and general confusion about the direction of U.S. foreign policy under the current administration.

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told Circa that Pompeo's nomination comes at a time when the State Department "needs some morale boosting" and "a fresh start."

Admitting he will inherit these problems, if confirmed, Pompeo told lawmakers his first priority as secretary of state will be to empower State's workforce and and ensure they "have a clear understanding of the president's mission."

Some lawmakers expressed skepticism that this will be possible, with the ranking Democrat on the committee lashing out at Trump's "erratic foreign policy" and the top Republican describing the president's tendency to "speak and act impulsively."

Still, Pompeo is generally thought to be in an advantageous situation, given his close, personal realtionship with Trump. Former Secretary of State Tillerson's tense relationship with the president regularly erupted in public disagreements that many say contributed to Trump's decision to fire him.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Pompeo's relationship with Trump will be a "critical component" of his success. "When the secretary of state comes to town, leaders and diplomats need to know that this is someone who's in the inner circle of the president, that has the president's trust and speaks for the administration."

Others argued that the secretary of state needs to have "strong independent voice" to push back against the White House.

Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey questioned whether Pompeo will be "a yes man" who will "enable President Trump's worst instincts."

Committee chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn. noted "many strong voices have been terminated or resigned" from the Trump administration. "That's why I think its fair for our members to ask if your relationship [with President Trump] is rooted in a candid, healthy give and take dynamic or whether it's based on deferential willingness to go along to get along."

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said he plans to oppose Pompeo's nomination because he believes he won't be supporting the president's "good instincts," but influencing him to sign on to a "bomb everywhere and be everywhere" foreign policy.

Unable to satisfy either criticism fully, Pompeo joked, "It looks like I gave a Goldilocks problem— too close or too far."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will vote on Pompeo's nomination before sending it to the full Senate. When he was nominated to be CIA director, Pompeo earned 66 votes, with 14 Democrats and one Independent approving his appointment.


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