WASHINGTON — Aiming to quell concerns before what is likely to be a narrow confirmation vote, Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo vowed on Thursday to ramp up efforts against Russia in "each place we confront them." But he ducked and dodged when asked whether he supports President Donald Trump's pounding criticism of the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Pompeo, now Trump's CIA chief, tread carefully when confronted with several of the president's controversial and undiplomatic statements, focusing instead on his plans to rebuild a depleted agency and restore its influence. Pompeo suggested he did not share all the president's views — including his skepticism about Russia's interference.
"I take a back seat to no one" when it comes to standing up to Russia, Pompeo said.
However, when asked if he would resign if Trump moved to scuttle the probe by firing special counsel Robert Mueller or the deputy attorney general to whom he reports, he said no.
Pompeo's nomination faces stiff opposition from a handful of Republicans and many Democrats as well as supporters of the Iran nuclear deal, environmentalists and minority rights groups, and his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared designed to blunt their criticism. The CIA chief told senators that he has been miscast as a "hawk" despite previous comments savaging the Iran accord and hinting at regime change in North Korea. He maintained he wants to improve the Iran deal and would continue efforts to do so even if Trump withdraws from it as he has threatened.
In his testimony, Pompeo confirmed for the first time publicly that he's been interviewed by the team of special counsel Mueller, who is investigating possible ties between Russia and Trump's presidential campaign as well as possible obstruction of justice issues. But he wouldn't answer questions about the contents of the interview, arguing it would be improper since, as CIA director in charge of overseas intelligence gathering, he has been a "participant" in Mueller's probe.
Under questioning, he said he would be unlikely to resign as secretary of state if Trump were to fire Mueller. Lawmakers are concerned the president may seek Mueller's ouster to try to shut down the investigation, and the White House has said it believes Trump does have the authority to fire him if desired.
"My instincts tell me no," Pompeo said about possibly resigning. "My instincts tell me my obligation to continue to serve as America's senior diplomat will be more important in times of domestic political turmoil."
Throughout the hearing, he drew a sharp contrast between himself and Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil who Trump unceremoniously fired last month. He lamented the "demoralizing" vacancies at the top echelons of the department during Tillerson's brief tenure and said he planned to fill those vacancies.
He cast his close connection to Trump as an advantage that would help him restore the significance of the department.
"My relationship with President Trump is due to one thing: We've demonstrated value to him at the CIA. So, in turn, he has come to rely on us," Pompeo said. "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."
His remarks before the committee were the first chance for lawmakers and the public to hear directly from the former Kansas congressman about his approach to diplomacy and the role of the State Department, should he be confirmed. Pompeo's views on global issues are well known — he was questioned extensively by senators for his confirmation to run the CIA — but Democratic senators have raised questions about his fitness to be top diplomat, given his hawkish views and past comments about minorities.