Trump’s Picks for State, CIA Hit Potential Roadblocks in Senate
President Donald Trump’s picks for Secretary of State and CIA director are running into potential roadblocks among Republicans in the Senate, suggesting a difficult confirmation process at a time when the administration wants to quickly fill the positions.
Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said Wednesday he’ll oppose Trump’s decision to replace Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and to nominate Deputy CIA Director Gina Haspel to lead the nation’s spy agency. Both in the past have supported waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” that Paul said are unacceptable forms of torture.
“I’m going to do everything I can to block them,” said Paul, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that plans to take up Pompeo’s nomination next month.
Another GOP senator who is a leading critic of waterboarding, John McCain of Arizona, said in a statement Tuesday that he would demand to hear more from Haspel on torture because her “career with the agency has intersected with the program of so-called ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on a number of occasions.”
The White House is pushing for rapid confirmation as Trump seeks to rebuild his foreign policy team after abruptly dismissing Tillerson on Tuesday. Because Republicans have only a one-vote majority in the Senate, losing GOP support could hurt Trump nominees if Democrats unite in opposition. While Republicans said they’re confident Pompeo and Haspel will be confirmed, Democrats were noncommittal.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called both of Trump’s picks “perfectly well qualified.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said he has no plans at the moment to urge Democrats to vote against the two, even as he added that Pompeo’s confirmation process will be a referendum on the administration’s policy toward Russia.
“I’d like to hear what Director Pompeo has to say,” Schumer said. “Will he be tougher on Russia? Will he encourage the president to be tougher on Russia?”
Trump’s decision to replace Tillerson comes as the State Department has been hobbled by top-level vacancies and the administration is preparing for high-stakes talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
For Senate Republicans, the potential for two controversial confirmations threatens to take away from time that could be used for policy work before the November election, which will determine control of both chambers.
Of Trump’s two planned nominees, Haspel appears to face a tougher path.
She would be the first woman to lead the intelligence agency. Unlike Pompeo, she hasn’t been through a confirmation process and the thorough vetting it involves.
She has served as deputy CIA director under Pompeo since last year, helping manage intelligence collection, analysis, covert action and relationships with overseas counterparts. When Trump decided to bomb Syria in response to chemical weapons attacks last April, she was among the officials in the White House situation room.
Her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee will turn in part on her role in the CIA’s covert program under President George W. Bush in which suspected terrorists were subjected to harsh interrogation methods, including waterboarding, which simulates drowning.
Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a top Democrat on the Intelligence panel, said she’ll have tough questions, even as she said she understands that Haspel has been a “good deputy” at the CIA.
“I look forward to speaking again with Gina Haspel about the role she would play and how she would run the CIA,” Feinstein said. “It’s no secret I’ve had concerns in the past with her connection to the CIA torture program and have spent time with her discussing this.”
‘Unsuitable to Serve’
Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, another member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday he’ll oppose both confirmations. He said Haspel’s background makes her “unsuitable to serve as CIA director.”
He also had criticism for Pompeo.
“Before and after his confirmation as CIA director, Mike Pompeo has demonstrated a casual relationship to truth and principle,” Wyden said. “He has downplayed Russia’s attack on our democracy, at times contradicting the intelligence community he is supposed to lead. He has also made inconsistent and deeply concerning statements about torture and mass spying on Americans.”
Pompeo drew bipartisan support when he was confirmed as CIA director in January 2017 on a 66-32 vote. Fifteen Senate Democrats backed him, including Schumer and two members of the Foreign Relations Committee that will consider his nomination as secretary of state — Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
He would need 50 votes to win Senate confirmation. McCain has been absent for months while undergoing treatment for brain cancer.
Foreign Relations Committee
Pompeo’s biggest challenge could come at the Foreign Relations Committee, where Republicans have a one-vote majority. None of the earlier Democratic supporters have indicated how they might vote this time, on a top diplomatic post that differs greatly from the CIA job. If all Democrats opposed him in the committee, Paul’s opposition would either block his chances there, or force GOP leaders to make the unusual choice of skipping the panel.
Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel, said Tuesday the top issue for him is the fact that the Trump administration has yet to levy sanctions on Russia that Congress approved in August.
That law requires the administration to impose sanctions against anyone acting on behalf of the Russian government to undermine a democratic institution anywhere in the world, Menendez said.
“Yet no sanctions have been levied,” he said. “And if the administration needs help looking for where that may have taken place, well, first they can start with the intelligence communities of the United States, including those that were appointed by the president, including Director Pompeo.”
— With assistance by Nafeesa Syeed