Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration's nominee to lead the State Department, made his case for confirmation on Thursday, stressing his military and CIA service to skeptical lawmakers, but if he hoped to focus on foreign policy, Democrats had other ideas, peppering him with questions about the FBI probe into potential links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The CIA Director, now seeking to become the 70th US secretary of state, is facing an uphill battle at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where one Republican and some Democrats are expected to oppose him. Even if Republican leaders take special measures to move his nomination to the broader Senate, the former House lawmaker still faces a tight vote.
Pompeo clearly had those concerns and the voting math in mind as he began what was expected to be a day-long appearance before the committee. But his appearance took a quick turn from foreign policy issues to the domestic, when Sen. Robert Menendez, the leading Democrat on the committee, took the opportunity to press Pompeo on President Donald Trump and the special counsel investigation into links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Menendez asked if Trump had ever asked him to "interfere" in the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Pompeo said he had been interviewed by Mueller, and is cooperating with special counsel.
Pompeo refused to discuss his conversations with the President, but said that Trump has "never asked me to do anything I consider improper." When Menendez pressed Pompeo several times about conversations he has had with Mueller, Pompeo said, "I think it is most appropriate that while the investigations continue, I not speak to the conversations I've had with the various investigative bodies."
He added that "there should be no negative inferences or for that matter positive inferences ... that while these investigations continue I not speak to" any of the conversations he had with Trump.
He declined to say if the President asked him to do anything about the Comey probe and could not "recall" the nature of a March 2017 conversation where Trump reportedly asked Pompeo to get Comey to pull back.
While lawmakers repeatedly returned to the question of Russia and the Mueller probe, there were ample questions about the myriad foreign policy challenges facing the US, all of which would almost immediately demand Pompeo's attention as secretary.
The President has also agreed to an unprecedented summit with North Korea's unpredictable leader amid concerns that Kim Jong Un is close to achieving the ability to reach the US with nuclear-tipped missiles.
Pompeo told Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, that he could envision a ground invasion of North Korea if it was required to deal with a nuclear threat.
"Yes, senator, I could" see such a scenario, Pompeo told Markey. "I suppose it's possible we could 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."
He also said it was possible that the US would be forced to conduct a first strike against Pyongyang.
"There may come the day when we see an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States of America," Pompeo said. "The President has made clear his intention to prevent that from happening and to the extent that diplomatic tools and other tools that America has as its foreign policy power are unsuccessful, I know that [Defense] Secretary (James) Mattis has been directed to present to the President a set of options that will achieve the President's objective."
Pompeo also said he has "never advocated for regime change," though in July he appeared to suggest taking just such a step.
"It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today," Pompeo said at the Aspen Security Forum. He continued, "so, from the administration's perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart."
On Thursday, Pompeo took a different stance saying the goal is "to develop an agreement with the North Korean leadership such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons, completely and verifiably."
Future of the Iran deal
Senators also asked about Iran, another country on which Pompeo is known to have hardline views.
Trump has set a May 12 deadline to either change or pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, creating enormous frustration among US allies in Europe who back the agreement. Pompeo, who tweeted about rolling back the deal as a House lawmaker, avoided a direct answer when asked if he would tell Trump to leave the deal, if a compromise can't be found.
"In the event that we conclude that we can't fix this deal ... then the President is going to be given best advice including by me," Pompeo said. "If there no chance to fix it, I'll recommend to the President we do our level best to work with our allies to achieve a better outcome and better deal. Even after May 12th, senator, there's still much diplomatic work to be done."
In a later exchange, Pompeo added, "Iran wasn't racing to a weapon before the deal. There is no indication that I'm aware of that, if the deal no longer existed, that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon today."
And despite suggesting when he was a House lawmaker that military strikes on Tehran would take care of Iran's nuclear program, Pompeo said Thursday that "my view is that the solution to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and finding ourselves in the same place we are in North Korea in Iran is diplomacy."
Russia a constant theme
But Russia came up repeatedly. Asked by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio whether he believes that Russia did interfere in the 2016 election, Pompeo agreed, and Pompeo said that WikiLeaks -- the group behind the leak of Democratic emails during the election campaign -- was hostile to the US.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and the only woman on the Foreign Relations Committee, asked whether Pompeo agreed with Trump's tweet on Wednesday that "much of the bad blood with Russia is caused by the Fake & Corrupt Russia Investigation" and Mueller.
And she pointed to the contradiction between the administration identifying malign behavior by Russia, including its election interference, and a President who refuses to criticize Moscow.
"How can we talk about the challenges and threats Russia faces to our democracy when we have the conflicting statements by the President?" she asked.
Shaheen also pointed out that the administration still hasn't fully implemented sanctions that were passed overwhelmingly by the House and Senate. "Will you hold Russia accountable?" she asked.
Pompeo answered that problems the US is experiencing with Russia are "caused by Russian bad behavior" and said the administration would be doing more. Analyzing Russian President Vladimir Putin's ambitions, Pompeo said he sees him as determined to undermine democracy in the West.
"We can't let that happen," Pompeo said, adding, "We need to push back in each place that we confront them and by every vector."
But he refused to engage with Shaheen's questions about Mueller's investigation. She asked whether Pompeo considered the probe "a witch hunt" as Trump has described it, and whether he thinks Trump can legally fire Mueller. Pompeo refused to answer either question.
When asked if Trump can fire Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein Pompeo again did not answer, saying, "I came here today to talk about my qualifications to be secretary of state."
Asked by another Democrat, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, whether he would resign if Trump moved to fire Mueller, Pompeo said he likely would not.
"My instincts tell me no. ... My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America's senior diplomat will be more important," Pompeo said.
The most senior lawmakers on the committee both touched on Pompeo's relationship with Trump, and specifically on the question of whether he will stand up to the President.
Menendez also questioned whether Pompeo would exert any independence "after a nearly a year and a half of reckoning with President Trump's erratic approach to foreign policy, which has left our allies confused and our adversaries emboldened."
"Will you stand up to President Trump and say, 'No, you are wrong in that view'? Or will you be a yes man?" Menendez asked. "Americans are scared that this President -- the commander in chaos -- will lead them into war. This is not a time for taunts and tweets."
"What is your real plan? Will you be a voice of reason or will you support the President's worst instincts?" Menendez asked.
The chairman of the committee, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, echoed those concerns.
"I think it's fair for members to ask whether your relationship is routed in a candid, healthy, give-and-take dynamic, or whether it's based on deferential willingness to go along to get along," he said.