Most diplomats, when their old positions put their objectives at risk, look for opportunities to de-escalate conflict. Mike Pompeo, Donald Trumps nominee for secretary of state, didnt take the off-ramps that senators repeatedly offered him on Thursday.
Pompeo was never going to have an easy confirmation hearing. As a tea-party congressman before joining the administration, he had made bigoted statements about American Muslims. As Trumps CIA director, Pompeo has used bellicose rhetoric against Iran and North Korea,to the delight of the White House, which has recently taken to purging national-security officials Trump considered out of sync with his impulses.
Bob Corker, the GOP chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Pompeo his colleagues were justified in wondering if his closeness with the president is based on deferential willingness to go along to get along. That kicked off five long and often agonizing hours in which Pompeo found himself caught between the president he seeks to please, the politician he used to be, and the senators he needs to convince.
Several Democratic senators confronted Pompeo with his most disgraceful moment in office: a speech on the House floor laying collective responsibility for terrorism on American Muslims, delivered soon after the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The silence of Muslim leaders has been deafening, Pompeo said in 2013. Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts.
Pompeo studiously ignored the numerous U.S. Muslim groups that condemned the attack without reservationWe are all Bostonians -we mourn with the city, read a Facebook post from the religious leader of Roxburys Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Centerand instead thundered that a special obligation falls on those that are the leaders of that faith. it casts doubt on the commitment to peace by adherents of the Muslim faith.
That speech was a critical moment in Pompeos political career. Prominent Islamophobes promoted the Kansas congressman, a relationship that has flowered ahead of his potential appointment as secretary of state. Frank Gaffney, who accused David Petraeus of a kind of submission to sharia law, boasted that Pompeos repeated appearances on his radio show validate [Pompeos] fitness. Brigitte Gabriel, who runs an organization that the Anti-Defamation League calls the largest anti-Muslim group in the United States, called him a clear leader in a statement blasted to reporters at the outset of Pompeos hearing.
Under senatorial pressure to account for his inflammatory speech, Pompeo did everything but apologizeeven when offered the explicit chance to do so. Pompeo talked about his intelligence contacts throughout a broad range of Muslim-majority countries, as if to say that some of his best intelligence allies are Muslims. He pretended that he was making the universalist statement that each and every human being has an obligation to push back against this extremist use of violence, despite having explicitly and uniquely singled out Muslims at the time for their alleged special obligation to do so.
New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker left Pompeo dodging and stammering when he asked the CIA director if he had condemned Gaffney and Gabriels bigotry. I would agree with you that silence in the face of injustice lends strength to that injustice, Booker noted.
Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat with a chowder-thick accent, finally got Pompeo to concede, it is true that many leaders spoke out about it, but added, Im not sure we ever get to a point where its enough.
Markey asked Pompeo if he apologized to the Boston Muslim leadershipnot even the entire adherents of the Muslim faith whose commitment to peace Pompeo doubted on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2013.
Senator, it was not my intention, in any respect to suggest that they were part of the chain of events that led to the attack, Pompeo said.
The Boston Muslim community came out and condemned it, Markey continued. Is there any way in your mind they are complicit?
Senator, to the extent they condemned the attacks, they did what it was that I think we all have the responsibility to do, Pompeo said, eliding the fact that those condemnations came weeks before his attribution of collective responsibility.
It was not the only moment that saw Pompeo tied into knots over his previous assertions.
As a congressman, Pompeo built his foreign-policy profile thundering ceaselessly against Iran, and warning that the nuclear deal with Tehran was a disaster. A uranium-particle discovery in 2016 was an extremely serious issue revealing the true nature of Irans program: to build a nuclear weapon. But with Trump expected to rip up the deal in May, Pompeo on Thursday suddenly downplayed Irans commitment to a nuclear arsenal.
If the U.S. walks away from the deal, Pompeo said, Iran wouldnt build a bomb, since its in their own economic self-interest to stay in an accord that Washington will have torn updespite having stated in 2015 that once the deal begins to formally expire years from now, it will virtually guarante[e] that Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons. And despite in 2014 saying that the Iranian nuclear threat was so extreme as to justify a bombing campaign of under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity, Pompeo told GOP Senator Jeff Flake, Iran wasnt racing to a weapon before the deal. For good measure, Pompeo said he absolutely not is in favor of an attack on Iran, though he did not abandon his long-standing rejection of the Iran deal.
Flake pressed Pompeo on the implications of tearing up the Iran deal as Trump prepares a diplomatic parley with North Koreas Kim Jong-un, who, unlike Iran, already possesses a nuclear arsenal. Pompeo denied that the U.S. reneging on one deal would have any impact on Kims willingness to sign another. The list of things hes thinking about dont include other deals throughout history, Pompeo said.
But Pompeo did tacitly recognize Pyongyangs close attention to Washingtons proclamations, and issued a rare climbdown. Last summer, Pompeo told a security forum that he was hopeful we will find a way to separate [Kims] regime from this system. Ahead of the Trump-Kim meetings, Pompeo said he is not advocating for regime change, though he did not disavow his prior advocacy of exactly that.
Doing so would likely undermine Trump and his supporters enthusiasm for Pompeo, the source of his current political power. But that tied Pompeo in knots as well. Pompeo insisted that the Trump administration had taken real actions to reset the deterrence relationship with respect to Russia. Confronted with statements from the National Security Agency director and the former national security adviser that Russian behavior remains aggressive, Pompeo later conceded, Vladimir Putin has not yet received the message.
But Pompeo left little doubt of his determination to become Secretary of State, an enormously powerful position and fourth in the constitutional line of succession to the presidency.
He confirmed that he has been interviewed by Robert Mueller but obfuscated on what Trump discussed with him about then-FBI Director James Comeys Russia investigation. After declaring his unwavering support for the rule of law, Pompeo was asked if he would resign in protest should Trump fire Mueller or Muellers functional boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
My instincts tell me no, he said, portraying himself as a steadfast force to protect the nation from foreign threats. My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as Americas senior diplomat will be more important at times of political domestic turmoil.
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