Secretary of state nominee acknowledged he spoke with the Trump-Russia special counsel, but declined to say what they discussed
By David Smith
Mike Pompeo, chosen by Donald Trump as America’s top diplomat, confirmed on Thursday that he has been interviewed by Robert Mueller in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Pompeo was responding to senators during five hours of testimony at his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, where he also faced questions over whether, as secretary of state, he would be part of a “war cabinet” that Trump is assembling ahead of potential conflicts with Iran, North Korea, Russia and Syria.
Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, asked Pompeo, currently CIA director, about a Washington Post reportthat in March last year he and the national intelligence director, Dan Coats, were alone with Trump when he complained about the FBI investigation and James Comey’s handling of it.
“This account strongly suggests that the president asked you and Director Coats to interfere with then FBI Director Comey’s investigations into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia,” Menendez said. “What did President Trump say to you and Director Coats in that meeting?”
Pompeo replied: “Senator, I’m not going to talk about the conversations that the president and I had … But I will tell you this. The article’s suggestion that he asked me to do anything improper is false.”
Under further questioning, he added: “I don’t recall what he asked me that day, precisely. But I have to tell you, I’m with the president an awful lot – he has never asked me to do anything that I considered remotely improper.”
Pompeo said he would not talk about private conversations with the president but acknowledged: “I spoke with Special Counsel Mueller, who interviewed me. Requested an interview, I cooperated.” He declined to reveal the subject of the conversation.
Later, Pompeo was pressed by Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire on whether he agreed with Trump’s characterisation of the Russia investigation as a “witch-hunt” and whether the president has the right to fire Mueller. He declined to comment.
But Pompeo did make clear that he would not resign if Trump fires the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. “My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America’s senior diplomat would be more important at increased times of political and domestic turmoil,” he said.
However, he also said the “historic conflict” between the US and Russia is due to Moscow’s “bad behaviour”, contradicting Trump’s assertion that the Mueller investigation is to blame.
The former Kansas congressman was nominated by Trump last month to succeed Rex Tillerson. The state department has been marginalised under the leadership of Tillerson, who endorsed huge budget cuts and saw morale plummet, and old allies around the world have been left bemused by mixed messages from an impulsive president.
Pompeo is seen as a foreign policy hawk who was opposed to the Iran nuclear deal and has been criticised for his past support for the Iraq war and tolerance of waterboarding and other methods of torture. He has also made incendiary comments about Muslims, and gay and lesbian people.
In his opening remarks, Pompeo referred to “demoralising” vacancies at the top echelons of the state department and said he planned to fill them. “My relationship with President Trump is due to one thing: we’ve demonstrated value to him at the CIA,” he said. “So, in turn, he has come to rely on us. I intend to ensure that the Department of State will be just as central to the president’s policies and the national security of the United States.”
The hearing inevitably had a particular focus on Syria, where Trump has tweeted threats of a missile strike in retaliation for use of chemical weapons against civilians, while also taunting Russia. Pompeo said he believed the president had the authority to order an attack without consulting Congress, citing precedent rather than the constitution. He also appeared to confirm reports that about 200 Russian mercenaries were killed in February during a clash with US-led forces in Syria.
“In Syria, a handful of weeks ago, the Russians met their match and a couple hundred Russians were killed,” said Pompeo, without disclosing further details. Media reports have suggested that Russian mercenaries working for the so-called “Wagner Group” were involved in the battle in February.
North Korea also figured prominently. Pompeo said “no one is under any illusions” that a planned US-North Korea summit can achieve a comprehensive agreement on the denuclearisation of the North. But he said he was optimistic it could “set us down the course to achieve a diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need”. He claimed: “I have never advocated for regime change.”
Senator Edward Markey asked if Pompeo concurred with John Bolton, the new national security adviser, that if economic sanctions are exhausted, a ground invasion of North Korea would be necessary to rid it of its nuclear weapons programme.
Pompeo said: “I supposed I could hypothesise such a situation so I’ll answer your question as could I imagine one? Yes, I could. I suppose it’s possible that we would get to the condition where … Kim Jong-un was directly threatening and we had information about his activities. Yes, I can imagine times when America would need to take a response that moved past diplomacy.”
Markey and Pompeo agreed that the consequences of such an attack would be “catastrophic”. Markey said: “I don’t feel comfortable with you not taking that off the table.”
Pompeo faced scrutiny over his past criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. He claimed: “I want to fix this deal.” But that appeared to be at odds with a more aggressive statement he made on Twitter in November 2016: “I look forward to rolling back this deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Senator Cory Booker, a Democrat from New Jersey, grilled Pompeo over past comments suggesting that Muslim Americans have a special obligation to condemn terrorist attacks. The director insisted: “I’ve heard these critiques. I have worked closely with Muslim leaders, with Muslim countries. The CIA has saved countless thousands of Muslim lives during my 15 months. This is at the core of who I am, Senator Booker, and I promise you I will treat people of each faith or no faith with the dignity and respect they deserve.”
But Booker also pushed Pompeo about his friendship with Frank Gaffney, widely seen as an Islamophobic conspiracy theorist, and past remarks in which he used the word “perversion” to describe homosexuality. “Yes or no: do you believe gay sex is a perversion?” Booker demanded. Pompeo said he stood by his view gay marriage is inappropriate and claimed: “My respect for every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation, is the same.”
The start of Thursday’s proceeedings were interrupted by protesters chanting: “No Pompeo! No more war!” One demonstrator was removed by police while shouting: “This man is no diplomat!”
Among those watching in the packed committee room were Nikki Haley, the US ambassador the UN, and Bob Dole, a former senator and Republican presidential candidate, who described Pompeo as “a brilliant guy”. He added: “He’s ready to go and he will be our top diplomat. What we would like to urge is a quick confirmation because he is needed by the president and the rest of us who live in this wonderful country.”
But Pompeo faces a close vote with the Republican senator Rand Paul and all Democrats expected to oppose him. Menendez voiced Democratic concerns over Pompeo’s closeness to the president with a series of sharp questions from the off. “Will you enable President Trump’s worst instincts? Will you advocate for long-term strategies to protect US national security and interests, or will you be lurching from crisis to crisis as we have been under this administration?
“Will you advocate for robust diplomacy or will you take America into unnecessary and costly wars? Will you stand up to President Trump and say ‘no, you are wrong in that view’? Or will you be a yes man? Americans are scared that this president – the commander in chaos – will lead them into war. This is not a time for taunts and tweets.”
Since being nominated last month, Pompeo has spent much of his time at the state department and has spoken to all eight living former secretaries including Hillary Clinton, whom he criticised over the 2012 attack on US facilities in Benghazi, Libya.