In the coming days, the Senate will decide whether to confirm outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo as President Trump’s second secretary of state, replacing Rex Tillerson, who left the administration with a battered reputation.
The Senate has generally been deferential to presidents when considering cabinet secretary nominees, especially when, as now, the Senate is controlled by the president’s own party. Even Tillerson—who spent an entire career representing the interests of ExxonMobil, and received an order of friendship from Vladimir Putin—managed to get seated last year with some bipartisan support in a historically contentious confirmation season.
Pompeo should be given no such deference.
Over the course of a short and volatile political career, Pompeo has advocated regime change in Iran and North Korea, peddled Benghazi conspiracy theories, and politicized intelligence as the director of the CIA. He comes before the Senate at an unusual moment, when his party’s majority has dwindled down to a one-vote margin, and his fate may in fact rest in the hands of the opposition. Senators from both parties should oppose his confirmation.
The reasons for this are threefold. First, to prevent Trump’s worst national security instincts from gaining another enabler. Second, to send a message that conducting oneself in public life the way Pompeo has won’t be rewarded with promotion to a position that requires bridging differences. Third, to reassert Congress’ proper role as an overseer of executive the branch, and an enforcer of governing and international norms.
There is nothing subtle about the turn that President Trump is taking. With a legislative agenda that expired with the passage of the tax bill, Republican members of Congress heading for the exits, and the rule of law encroaching from every direction, Trump’s pivot to national security, where U.S. Presidents face the least constraints, has been entirely predictable. And by elevating John Bolton to run the National Security Council and nominating Pompeo to run the State Department, Trump is signaling that the United States—and the rest of the world—is in for a dangerous and destructive ride.
Very few people are in the room when a president decides whether or not to go to war, and of those few, the secretary of state and national security adviser are two of the most important. By elevating Pompeo and Bolton to those roles, Trump is tipping the balance heavily in the direction of the worst aspects of his character: recklessness, vindictiveness, and crude identity politics. And he is doing so when three flashpoints are lit: Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Trump is poised to launch a military strike in response to the Assad regime’s recent use of chemical weapons. The question is whether that will lead to self-defeating escalation. Trump himself has been all over the map on the issue—demanding a speedy withdrawal of U.S. troops battling ISIL in Syria, while saber-rattling at Assad; cutting humanitarian assistance and barring Syrian refugees, while mouthing occasional words of support for the Syrian people; talking about the need to work with Russia, while being excluded from Russia’s diplomatic initiatives with Turkey and Iran.
Where might Pompeo come down? In the past, he has declared: “It is in our interest to crush ISIS, terrorist groups like the al-Nusra front and Ahrar al-Sham, and Iran’s puppet Assad.” All three of those forces have been fighting each other in Syria for years. This reflexive hawkishness is precisely the kind of dangerous mindset that could lead the United States into a costly, open-ended war, and suggests little instinct for the persistence, patience, and appreciation for nuance needed to conduct the kind of diplomacy that might actually alleviate suffering in Syria.
As CIA Director, Pompeo has always been on the destructive side of intra-administration debates. Where Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster pressed Trump to remain in the nuclear deal with Iran, Pompeo contradicted his own CIA analysts—who have repeatedly determined that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal—to help Trump build a case for decertifying it. In doing so, he politicized the role of CIA director and alienated the very allies he’d have to work with as secretary of state.
Trump will have to decide by May 12 whether to pull the United States out of the deal entirely—a step that would spark a crisis with our allies, and could lead Iran to resume its nuclear program. There’s little doubt what course Pompeo will recommend. He has long advocated regime change in Iran, while characterizing the course of events spelled out in the Iran deal in inaccurate and apocalyptic terms. A renewed nuclear crisis with Iran risks a slide into war; that is, if Trump’s fealty to Saudi Arabia doesn’t lead us there first.
Blowing up a painstakingly negotiated nuclear agreement with Iran is also just about the most illogical and self-defeating possible way to enter into nuclear negotiations with North Korea. It sends a message to Kim Jong Un, China, Russia, and our allies that the United States cannot be trusted to honor its commitments, even when Iran is abiding by far-reaching restrictions and inspections of its nuclear program.
The Kim-Trump Summit—which has been promised for May or June—presents a potentially promising off-ramp from our current path of escalation with North Korea, and we should all root for its success. But it could also lead somewhere more dangerous. Trump could decide to declare victory based on some empty and unverified promise of “denuclearization.” Or he could reach the end of the diplomatic runway before really testing how far we can get through diplomacy—a process that would normally take many months, if not years. Pompeo, who has embraced a slightly more articulate version of Trump’s bluster towards Kim, seems ill equipped to lead that effort.
Pompeo’s supporters will point to his sharp intellect. But you cannot ignore the ends to which he has directed those attributes. For years, he has trafficked in bigoted fear-mongering that tars all of Islam as complicit in terrorism. As a member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, he was prone to exaggeration, distortion, and the promotion of conspiracy theories. He was so partisan that he filed an additional addendum to the majority report issued by chairman Trey Gowdy, because the majority report was not sufficiently conspiratorial or anti-Clinton. At the CIA, he has sought to downplay the impact of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election. In one notorious episode, he contradicted the findings of the broader intelligence community and his own CIA had to correct him. It’s no surprise Trump believed Pompeo would intervene with the FBI on his behalf to curtail the Russia investigation, but during his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Pompeo asked us to believe that he does not recall what Trump said to him during that critical episode.
Pompeo also has the kinds of conflicts of interests that have come to define the rampant corruption in the Trump cabinet. He has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Koch brothers while questioning the science that climate change is caused by human beings. We only recently learned that he failed to disclose business ties to the Chinese government.
It is impossible to divorce Pompeo’s nomination from the course we can all see the Trump Administration taking with our own eyes. The unravelling of the Trump White House only increases the risks of an unstable President choosing to assert himself through reckless adventurism abroad. His choice of an unreconstructed Iraq War evangelist in John Bolton to be his national security adviser suggests that is the direction he intends to move. So does his decision to elevate a partisan warrior and conspiratorial ideologue to be America’s top diplomat.
Thus far, Congress has abdicated its responsibility to authorize the nation’s wars, to conduct oversight of an Administration that has gutted the State Department, and to police the norms of presidential behavior at home and American leadership abroad. Sooner, rather than later, that needs to change; rejecting Pompeo’s nomination would be a good place to begin.