The White House started turning up the heat and pointing fingers Wednesday in a bid to bolster CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s confirmation as secretary of state next week — a sign that Pompeo’s ascent may be in trouble.
President Donald Trump disclosed on Twitter that Pompeo had met secretly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un — which puts pressure on the Senate to confirm Pompeo so the president can have his designated top diplomat at the table when he meets with the North Korean strongman, possibly in June.
Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 18, 2018
The White House held a telephone briefing with counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., to discuss the challenges ahead. Conway argued that Pompeo’s success should be bipartisan as he is “eminently qualified,” has been lauded for improving morale at the CIA and won confirmation as the top guy at Langley with bipartisan support. (Fifteen Democrats supported Pompeo’s CIA confirmation.)
Democrats who voted to confirm Pompeo last year, however, have begun to bolt, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a statement, Shaheen said that while she appreciates Pompeo’s service at the CIA, she is troubled by his statements “on the LGBTQ community, American Muslims and women’s reproductive rights.”
It is possible Pompeo will not garner a single Democratic vote in the committee.
Cotton frankly acknowledged that Pompeo may not have the votes to win a recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Republicans hold 10 of the 19 committee seats, but Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., was the lone Republican to vote against Pompeo’s confirmation as the nation’s spy chief last year. Rand has said he opposes Pompeo because of his support for the Iraq War.
During a meeting at Mar-a-Lago with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump chose to address Pompeo’s chances. “I will say this about Rand Paul,” Trump said. “He’s never let me down.” The president recalled that Paul “voted for health care” when he was inclined to oppose it.
Senate rules allow a floor vote on a nominee who does not win a committee recommendation. In 1991, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas carried the Senate with a 52-48 vote after the Judiciary Committee failed to recommend him.
If Pompeo’s confirmation succeeds through the same route, Cotton told reporters, “that puts Pompeo in pretty good company.”
To win the Senate under that scenario, Pompeo would need at least one Democratic senator to support Pompeo — or at least two if Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is not well enough to vote.
Cotton singled out Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., as three Democrats from states that Trump won big in 2016. All three, he warned, would have trouble explaining their opposition to “an obviously qualified nominee for whom they voted last year.”
Former Obama undersecretary of state Ellen Tauscher thinks Democrats who supported Pompeo last year can oppose him now. “I think he’s really in trouble,” she observed, as Democrats are increasingly concerned about giving Trump “an acquiescent war cabinet.”
The secretary of state slot opened up last month when Trump fired his first top diplomat, Rex Tillerson on Twitter and announced Pompeo as Tillerson’s successor.
Heritage Foundation senior fellow James Carafano, who was on the Trump transition team, believes the Democratic leadership will make sure Pompeo wins, rather than appear overly obstructionist just as Trump is working to denuclearize North Korea and make America more secure.
Carafano sees “the normal Kabuki dance,” with both sides lining up against each other, then everyone sitting down to figure out how many votes they need to get Pompeo over the line.
Watch Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who has yet to take a position on Pompeo, said Mark Harkins, senior fellow at the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. As an institutionalist, Schumer “thinks that unless a person is unqualified, the president has the right to pick” his top people. Schumer voted to confirm Pompeo last year.
Contact Debra J. Saunders at email@example.com or 202-662-7391. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.
“The confirmations of our most recent Secretaries of State have been bipartisan exercises. John Kerry was confirmed as Secretary of State 94-3. Hillary Clinton was confirmed 94-2. The vote for Condoleezza Rice to be Secretary of State was 85-13. And Colin Powell, her predecessor in that job, was confirmed unanimously by a voice vote.”
-Kellyanne Conway, counsel to the president