Pompeo grilled, will he be a 'yes man'?

US senators quiz Trump's nominee for secretary of state at confirmation hearing

WASHINGTON • United States President Donald Trump's nominee for chief diplomat, CIA director Mike Pompeo, was yesterday pressed by senators to give the President independent advice on foreign policy hot spots should he be confirmed as the next US secretary of state.

With the US immersed in high-risk diplomacy from Syria to North Korea, Mr Pompeo planned to tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that a milder American policy towards Russia is "now over" and promise that the State Department will find its "swagger once again", according to his prepared remarks.

But the opening statements from the committee's top Republican and Democrat showed that the hearing would also be a referendum on Mr Trump himself and whether Mr Pompeo could be a moderating influence on what many lawmakers see as an impulsive president.

The committee's Republican chairman, Senator Bob Corker, said he wanted to know whether Mr Pompeo's relationship with Mr Trump "is rooted in a candid, healthy, give-and-take dynamic or whether it's based on deferential willingness to go along to get along".

New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, asked: "Will you stand up to President Trump and advise him differently when he's wrong or will you be a 'yes man'?"

Mr Pompeo has cited his experience at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) - where he regularly hosted discussions with career staff - as a sign he can rebuild morale and inspire employees at the State Department, where former secretary Rex Tillerson was accused of weakening morale and de-emphasising the importance of human rights and US values overseas.

In his prepared remarks, Mr Pompeo also addressed key issues that will be on his plate as secretary of state, including Russia and Iran.

"Russia continues to act aggressively, enabled by years of soft policy towards that aggression," read Mr Pompeo's prepared remarks. "That's now over. The list of this administration's actions to raise the cost for (Russian President) Vladimir Putin is long."

On Iran, he was expected to tell senators that he will work with US allies to fix the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, which Mr Trump has threatened to withdraw from. He was also set to say that there was "no higher diplomatic task" than resolving the North Korean nuclear threat.

Senators will likely seek to know whether the White House is shifting strategies with Mr Trump's nomination of Mr Pompeo and the appointment of Mr John Bolton as national security adviser, both of whom share more hawkish views than their predecessors.

Mr Pompeo, 54, a former House member from Kansas, will also face questions on whether policy will be made in a deliberative process or based on the President's impulses.

Democrats say Mr Pompeo can expect a tough confirmation fight, even though he already went through the process to become CIA director with bipartisan support and will be accorded more courtesy than a typical nominee because he is a former congressman. Mr Pompeo will need bipartisan support to clear the panel, which Republicans govern with a narrow 11-10 majority.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2018, with the headline 'Pompeo grilled, will he be a 'yes man'?'. Print Edition | Subscribe