CIA Director Mike Pompeo, Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday in a 57-42 vote that fell mostly along party lines. That means Pompeo, a hardline hawk with a long history of association with anti-Islam extremists, will soon take up the position of America’s top diplomat.
There’s no question Pompeo has impressive credentials. He’s a West Point and Harvard Law School graduate, a US Army veteran, and a three-term Congress member who first came to Washington in the Tea Party wave in 2010. He received coveted spots on the House Intelligence Committee and, in 2014, the Select Committee on Benghazi — positions that would usually go to more senior members.
But during his six years in Congress, Pompeo made a number of controversial 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.
Trump’s new Secretary of State has courted controversy
During his first posting in the Trump administration, as CIA director, Pompeo appeared to be a relatively competent manager — unlike his predecessor at State, Rex Tillerson, who left the department in shambles. Yet Pompeo did a number of things that suggest he hasn’t lost his taste for partisan warfare.
In October, for example, he falsely asserted during a think tank event that “the intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” The problem is three intelligence agencies didn’t assess the impact Moscow may or may not have had on the election’s final tally.
During his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Pompeo tried to present a more moderate front. He walked back past comments that seemed to endorse war with Iran and regime change in North Korea, leading to serious confusion from Democrats on the Foreign Relations committee. The most telling moment came at the end, when New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez — the committee’s top Democrat — ripped into the nominee.
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. “As we close here,” Menendez said, “I am trying to think about which Mike Pompeo I will be asked to vote on.”
His questions were never answered, not really. Mike Pompeo is officially becoming secretary of state at a time when Trump seems on the verge of tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and entering into nuclear negotiations with North Korea. This is shaping up to be an important turning point in the Trump presidency, and we can’t really be sure what direction Pompeo will push the president toward next.
Meanwhile, the State Department is in crisis. Recent data from the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional organization for America’s diplomatic corps, found that 60 percent of State’s highest-ranking career officers quit during Trump’s first year; the number of applications to join the foreign service dropped by half. Fewer than half of all top-level positions, political appointees nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, have been filled.
Pompeo seems to have his work cut out for him.