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Democrats press State pick Pompeo on Russia probe, Iran deal

One of America's top spies set out to defend his qualifications to be its top diplomat on Thursday. Mike Pompeo, a former congressman, Army officer and self-professed hawk, stressed in his Senate confirmation hearing that he believes in diplomacy and empowering U.S. diplomats. But the current CIA director was met with fierce questioning and criticism from Democrats. Lisa Desjardins reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    World hot spots, America's role in the world, and the state of the State Department itself, the nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, spent this day discussing all those issues.

    Lisa Desjardins reports on the CIA director's confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    After the cameras cleared, one of America's top spies set out to defend his qualifications to be its top diplomat.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    The story is, I'm a hawk, I'm a hard-liner.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Mike Pompeo, a former U.S. congressman and Army officer, stressed he believes in diplomacy.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    There's no one like someone who served in uniform who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war like someone who served in uniform. It is the last resort. It must always be so. The best outcomes are always won at the diplomatic table.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pompeo also pledged to make American diplomats feel relevant again after the stormy tenure of Rex Tillerson at the State Department.

    But Pompeo was quickly met with fierce criticism from Democrats, who say they fear he won't speak up against President Donald Trump, his close ally. Some of those Democrats voted to block Pompeo from becoming CIA director last year, as did Republican Senator Rand Paul, who spoke about his objections today.

  • Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.:

    And my main concern is that, will you be one that will listen to what the president actually wants, instead of being someone who advocates for us staying forever in Afghanistan, another Iraq war, bombing Syria without permission?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    With Paul opposed and ailing Arizona Republican John McCain likely to miss confirmation, Pompeo will need at least one Democrat's vote. And for Democrats, a key issue of conscience and power today was how Pompeo would handle a potential conflict over the special counsel's Russia investigation.

  • Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.:

    I'm convinced that if the president were to fire the special counsel, or to interfere with his investigation by firing Rod Rosenstein with an intention to then interfere with or shut down this investigation, that it would put the rule of law genuinely at risk.

    If that were the case, and if that happened, would you resign your post of secretary of state in order to demonstrate that we are a nation of laws, not of men?

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Senator, I haven't given that question any thought. My instincts tell me no. My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America's senior diplomat would be more important at increased times of increased political turmoil.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pompeo said he has spoken to special counsel Mueller as part of the Russia investigation, but could not say anything further due to confidentiality.

    Another heated topic, Pompeo's past opposition to the Iran nuclear deal. Maryland Senator Ben Cardin wanted to know what this could mean for Mr. Trump's decision on whether to withdraw the deal before an upcoming deadline.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    I want to fix this deal. That's the objective. I think that's in the best interests of the United States of America.

  • Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.:

    But if the agreement cannot be changed, what is your view? Is it better to pull out of an agreement that Iran is in compliance with if we can't fix, or is it better to stay in the agreement?

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Senator…

  • Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.:

    Yes or no?

  • Mike Pompeo:

    No, Senator, it's not a yes-or-no question, because it's a hypothetical. We're not at that point.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As Cardin pressed, at one point, committee Chairman Bob Corker stepped in.

  • Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.:

    I wasn't asking the president's position. I want to know your view on that.

  • Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.:

    I think what Director Pompeo is saying is, that's also his opinion. Is that correct?

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Senator, that is correct.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pompeo told the committee there was no evidence the Iranians had broken their part of the deal, but it seemed more a question of the deal's importance. Pompeo had this exchange with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, implying low risk if the deal ends.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Iran wasn't racing to 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 weapons.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Iranians themselves have said they could resume enrichment within days if the deal ends.

    Asked about Vladimir Putin, Pompeo indicated the U.S. of all of its tools to push back against Russia, and that he sees Putin as a Cold War-style adversary.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    I will take Vladimir Putin at his word that the greatest failure of 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Pompeo defended the Trump administration as countering Russia, at one point appearing to boast about the U.S. killing Russian mercenaries operating in Syria in February.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    In Syria, now a handful of weeks ago, the Russian met their match. A couple hundred Russians were killed.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's a big deal, because the Pentagon has been quiet on the subject. U.S. officials have only conceded that scores of Russians were killed.

    New Jersey's Cory Booker pushed Pompeo on a social issue, gay marriage, now legal and recognized by the State Department.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    When I was a politician I had a very clear view on whether it was appropriate for two same-sex person to marry. I stand by that.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    So, you do not believe it's appropriate for two gay people to marry?

  • Mike Pompeo:

    Senator, I continue to hold that view.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But Pompeo insisted that LGBTQ rights are human rights, and that he wants a diverse State Department, strengthening the agency.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    As the CIA director, I have honored and valued every single CIA officer, regardless of race, color, sexual orientation. I have treated every one of our officers with dignity and respect. I have promoted them when they deserved it. I have held them accountable when they deserved that as well. I promise you that I will do that as the secretary of state.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Another heated topic, Pompeo's past statements about Islam and Muslims, especially after 2013's Boston bombing, and his appearances on a radio show that contained anti-Muslim rhetoric.

    Today, Pompeo insisted he is a tolerant man with a history of defending all religious rights.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, tell us, who are the key votes here on this confirmation question, and what are they saying tonight?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There are 14 Democrats who voted to support Mr. Pompeo when he was the nominee for CIA director. They wanted him in that job. Those are the ones to watch.

    Already, one of them has said he's a no on Mr. Pompeo for State Department. I talked to several offices of those Democrats, and they're undecided tonight. Honestly, I think they're waiting to see which way the wind blows on this hearing, how he is perceived after this, and to meet with him in person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what is the timing of this confirmation vote?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The first vote will be in committee. That's expected next week. And, frankly, Judy, it doesn't look like Mr. Pompeo will get an endorsement from the committee because Rand Paul sits on the committee. He will vote no.

    Then we will wait to see the scheduling on the Senate floor. It will probably depend on how much support he has at that time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, separately, Lisa, I want to ask you about something else, and that is after Paul Ryan's announcement yesterday that he's not going to run for reelection, won't serve in Congress again, what are you hearing about the race to succeed him as speaker of the House?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I thought this would take longer, but we did get some fast news today from Whip Steve Scalise. He said he will not run against Kevin McCarthy. If Kevin McCarthy wants to be speaker, he will let him run.

    Now, Kevin McCarthy hasn't announced that yet, but it's expected. We will see how this plays out. Those two men won't run against each other, at least we know for now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, all this depends on which party has the majority in the House after this November.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right. Exactly.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, thank you.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You're welcome.

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