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Could face bumpy confirmation

Issued: 2018-03-13

The confirmation of President Trump’s picks for secretary of state and CIA director is likely to be hampered but not stymied by a mostly partisan backlash to their past statements and actions, and to the decision that led to their nominations — the termination of Rex Tillerson for being one of the few Cabinet members, Democrats argued Tuesday, who was willing to stand up to the president on foreign policy.

Leaders of both parties predicted it could take a while to confirm CIA Director Mike Pompeo as the new secretary of state and Gina Haspel as Pompeo’s replacement at the CIA, leaving the State Department officially rudderless at a time when the administration faces pressing challenges surrounding newly announced talks with North Korea, looming deadlines for continued compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, Russian aggression in advance of the 2018 midterm elections, the rollout of new tariffs and a deteriorating situation in Syria.

“It’ll obviously take some time and effort,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.). “I’m confident we’ll get them confirmed, but when there’s so much of a backlog on nominations already, it just adds two other high-profile nominations to our workload.”

[Trump ousts Tillerson, will replace him as secretary of state with CIA chief Pompeo]

Senate Democrats excoriated Trump, accusing him of further confusing the White House’s often controversial and shifting diplomatic stance. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Trump “a commander in chaos,” and some of Tillerson’s harshest Democratic critics rushed to defend him.

“It is another sign that the Trump administration does not tolerate independent voices,” said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), a senior senator and former ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. “I had my differences with Mr. Tillerson . . . but it is a concern to see this type of a change and for the apparent reason that Mr. Trump demands total loyalty.”

The widespread criticism from Democrats ensures that GOP leaders will have difficulty confirming Pompeo and Haspel expeditiously. But the backlash is not expected to upset their eventual chances of confirmation — Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that at this point he has no plans to ask Democrats to oppose their nominations.

The Senate approved Pompeo last year with the support of 14 Democrats — some of whom sounded bullish about the chances they would vote for Pompeo again.

“Every time he’s come in before the [intelligence] committee, he’s been well received, he’s been forthright, answered all the questions,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). “I always think he was well received.”

But not all Democrats who backed Pompeo once were willing to commit to doing so again.

“I think there are a number of us who voted for him last time who are actively reconsidering based on his service in the administration,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “A lot of us gave him the benefit of the doubt. We were told he was going to handle everything on the level and be nonpolitical. And it’s not clear that that’s his record at the CIA.”

Republicans and Democrats also sounded warnings that Haspel would have to answer for the time she spent in charge of a CIA “black site” prison and for her efforts to destroy videotapes depicting detainees being subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques” that have been condemned as torture.

[Haspel, Trump’s pick for CIA, tied to use of brutal interrogation measures]

“Ms. Haspel needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program during the confirmation process,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an ex officio member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

But Haspel’s record is unlikely to destroy her chances of confirmation. Though some Democratic senators, such as Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said Haspel’s past makes her “unsuitable to serve as CIA director,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), author of the report that exposed the extent of the CIA’s interrogation programs, appeared to defend her.

“She has been, I believe, a good deputy director,” Feinstein said, stressing that the interrogation techniques employed on Haspel’s watch were not, at the time, explicitly illegal. “Fortunately the law, thanks to Senator McCain, has been changed, and torture is now illegal in the United States,” Feinstein said. “That’s with specificity, and I think that’s important. So it’s a different day.”


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