Nominee to lead State Dept.: Soft policy on Russia ‘over’

Posted at 6:24 PM, Apr 11, 2018

WASHINGTON (AP) — Mike Pompeo, the hard-charging CIA director picked to be the next secretary of state, will tell the Senate on Thursday that years of soft U.S. policy toward Russia are “now over.” Drawing a sharp contrast with predecessor Rex Tillerson, Pompeo will vow to promote democracy and human rights while ending “demoralizing” vacancies at the State Department.

According to his prepared remarks, Pompeo will chastise Russia for acting “aggressively” and emphasize that the Trump administration considers Russia “a danger to our country.” But he will also say that diplomatic efforts with Moscow, while challenging, “must continue.” The Associated Press obtained excerpts of his remarks from a senior Trump administration official.

Pompeo will also stress America’s “duty to lead,” despite Trump’s vows to put “America first.”

“If we do not lead the calls for democracy, prosperity and human rights around the world, who will?” Pompeo plans to say. “No other nation is equipped with the same blend of power and principle.”

Pompeo’s remarks Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will be the first chance for lawmakers and the public to hear directly from the former Kansas congressman about his approach to diplomacy and the role of the State Department, should he be confirmed to lead it. Pompeo’s views on global issues are well known — he was questioned extensively by senators for his confirmation to run the CIA — but Democratic senators have raised questions about his fitness to be top diplomat, given his hawkish views and past comments about minorities.

“When journalists, most of whom have never met me, label me — or any of you — as ‘hawks,’ ‘war hardliners,’ or worse, I shake my head,” the former Army officer will say. “There are few who dread war more than those of us who have served in uniform.”

He will add, “War is always the last resort.”

Since being nominated last month, Pompeo has spent much of his time at the State Department immersing himself in briefing books and undergoing mock hearings and prep meetings on key issues like Iran, Syria and North Korea, as well as the inner workings of the State Department, a person close to Pompeo said. He’s also spoken to all eight living former secretaries — including Hillary Clinton, whom he famously criticized over the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

Pompeo’s chief goal Thursday is to convince senators that he intends to strengthen the State Department and re-establish its relevance as a major player in national security policy, said the individual, who wasn’t authorized to comment by name and requested anonymity.

That message is an implicit contrast with Tillerson, who left scores of top positions unfilled and the diplomatic corps dispirited before being unceremoniously fired by Trump on Twitter in March. Pompeo will tell the Senate that as he met with State Department workers recently, every single one told him he or she wanted to be “empowered in their roles” and clear about Trump’s mission.

“That will be my first priority,” Pompeo will say. “They also shared how demoralizing it is to have so many vacancies and frankly, not to feel relevant. I’ll do my part to end the vacancies, but I’ll need your help.”

Pompeo’s questioning by senators comes amid spiraling tensions with Russia over Syria and China over trade; concerns about the planned summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un; and uncertainty over the administration’s international agenda.

He’ll tell the Senate that he’s read CIA histories of past talks with North Korea and is confident that Trump won’t repeat past mistakes.

“President Trump isn’t one to play games at the negotiating table, and I won’t be either,” he plans to say.

The Republican will also pledge to make it “an immediate personal priority” to work with U.S. allies to try to “fix” the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has vowed to withdraw the U.S. if agreement with European allies to revamp to deal can’t be reached by May 12.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat on the committee considering Pompeo’s nomination, said after meeting with him Tuesday that he didn’t get the impression Pompeo was well-versed in world affairs and seemed unfamiliar with the current status of several issues.

“I assume by Thursday he’ll get up to speed,” Cardin told reporters.

Trump announced Pompeo’s nomination to become the 70th secretary of state in the same March 13 tweet in which he dumped Tillerson. “He will do a fantastic job,” Trump said at the time, confirming months of speculation that the largely sidelined Tillerson was out of a job and would be replaced by Pompeo, who is known to have the president’s ear and respect and shares his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal.

At the State Department, the shake-up was met with a mixture of relief and trepidation.

On the one hand, Tillerson had alienated many with his deeply unpopular bureaucratic reorganization. His overt endorsement of hefty budget cuts and his failure to fill jobs attracted the ire of lawmakers of both political parties.

But many diplomats have privately voiced apprehension about Pompeo’s history of sometimes hostile comments toward the gay community and Islam and his fierce criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks.

Pompeo, who was confirmed for the CIA job by a 66-32 vote, developed a reputation for being more outwardly political than many past directors of the traditionally apolitical agency. He developed a visibly close relationship with the president, traveling to the White House on most days to deliver the highly classified President’s Daily Brief in person rather than leaving the task to other intelligence officials. Often Trump would have the CIA director stay in the West Wing after the briefing to accompany him to other meetings.