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Mike Pompeo’s biggest problem is Mike Pompeo

Trump’s secretary of state pick struggled to defend his past statements during Thursday’s confirmation hearing.

Trump’s secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo appears at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday, April 12, 2018.
Trump’s secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo appears at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, April 12, 2018.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

The most telling moment of Mike Pompeo’s secretary of state confirmation hearing on Thursday came at the very end.

Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, decided to stop asking Pompeo questions and instead took some time to compare the answers Pompeo had given at the day’s hearing to what he has said in the past on the same issues.

Menendez ticked off contradiction after contradiction: Pompeo said during the hearing that he supports a diplomatic approach to Iran’s nuclear program, but in the past has said that regime change is “the only way” to deal with the problem. He said today that he opposes regime change in North Korea but had mused just last year about toppling the Kim regime. And it went on from there.

The pattern was clear: Pompeo has a long history of extreme rhetoric, on issues ranging from the use of military force to Islam to LGBTQ rights — but had spent the entire hearing presenting a much less extreme, and more palatable, version of his views. After about five hours of hearings, it was clear that Menendez had had enough.

“As we close here,” the senator said, “I am trying to think about which Mike Pompeo I will be asked to vote on.”

Menendez didn’t know the answer to that question — and the American people don’t either. But the answer matters, as he may very well soon be the country’s secretary of state.

The two Pompeos

Mike Pompeo is a smart guy. He spent the day answering questions from senators on a range of foreign issues, and sounded fluent and prepared to discuss each of them. When presented with tough questions, like whether he could ever support a ground invasion of North Korea, he toed a logically clever line — saying, “I suppose I could hypothesize such a situation,” without ever committing to a specific set of circumstances under which he could believe war was appropriate.

And in general, he did a good job balancing what every Trump appointee has had to confront in their confirmation hearings: sounding reasonable and intelligent without openly contradicting some of Trump’s more outlandish pronouncements. Pompeo even managed to dodge repeated Democratic attempts to pin down his position on the Mueller investigation, typically by saying it was outside the purview of his job as secretary of state.

But Mike Pompeo’s biggest problems didn’t come when he had to defend Trump’s views. It was when he had to defend his own.

During his six years in Congress, Pompeo made a number of controversial and in some cases offensive statements. He falsely asserted that the Obama administration intentionally covered up the truth about the Benghazi investigation. He seemingly endorsed the notion that homosexuality is a “perversion.” In a 2013 floor speech, he accused the American Muslim community of being “silent” about the Boston Marathon bombing (they weren’t) and then claimed that their so-called silence “casts doubt upon the commitment to peace among adherents of the Muslim faith.”

He also sought the support of some extremely radical anti-Muslim voices, most notably Frank Gaffney and Brigitte Gabriel. Gaffney, a conspiracy theorist who has accused most American Muslim civic organizations of being fronts for Islamist groups, regularly hosted then-Rep. Pompeo on his radio show. Gabriel, an anti-Islam activist who has described Islam as “a political movement cloaked in religion,” hosted a dinner in Pompeo’s honor in 2016 — where she gave him an award that he accepted.

These kinds of views and associations belie the moderate, reasonable facade Pompeo presented during today’s hearing. And indeed, the only times he seemed to be in real trouble were when senators called him to account for this.

The most dramatic moment of the entire day came when Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) tried to force Pompeo to explain his connections to Gabriel and Gaffney. Pompeo had nothing:

The end of that exchange, where Pompeo sputters while trying to explain himself, is the moment where the two Pompeos were most clearly brought into conflict — and there was no way to reconcile them.

Pompeo’s record as CIA director isn’t incredibly encouraging either

While he seemed to be a reasonably competent manager at the CIA, unlike former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in his department, Pompeo did a number of things that suggest he hasn’t lost his taste for partisan warfare since moving into Trump’s Cabinet.

In October, he went on NBC News and falsely asserted that “the intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” Pompeo’s overall record, as my colleague Alex Ward puts it, has been one of “a Trump crony” who is “more loyal to Trump than to the people he leads.”

So the vital question for Pompeo today was whether this history was, in fact, representative of how he’d approach his job as secretary of state. Pompeo insisted that it wasn’t, often by reinterpreting what he’d said in the past or flatly contradicting himself, most notably when it came to regime change in Iran.

Very few of the questioners did a good job pointing out this disconnect; Booker and Menendez were exceptions rather than the rule. In that sense, then, much of the hearing felt like a waste of time.

Since Pompeo was working overtime to distance himself from his past views, it was hard to tell if any of the policy answers he gave actually reflect the approach he’d pursue if confirmed. While you could say that of any nominee, it felt especially important given the wide disconnect between Pompeos past and present.

But in the end, perhaps that was the most useful point of the entire exercise. Any senator who votes for Mike Pompeo needs to take into account that the man on display today might not be the one who ends up serving as secretary of state. Menendez was right; they can’t be sure whom they’re voting for.