Opinion: Pompeo’s Rendezvous With Senatorial Waterboarding

Secretary of state designee faces the most anti-Trump committee in Congress

CIA Director Mike Pompeo is slated to succeed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But he will face one of the most grueling confirmation hearings since President Donald Trump took office, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
CIA Director Mike Pompeo is slated to succeed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But he will face one of the most grueling confirmation hearings since President Donald Trump took office, Shapiro writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 14, 2018 at 5:02am

In the realm of the 21st century Sun King, Donald J. Trump, there is room for only one Rex, the president himself.

The style of Tuesday morning’s surprise sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made corporate human relations departments seem warm and nurturing in comparison. Trump fired the highest-ranking Cabinet member — the official who is fourth in line for presidential succession — in Halloween fashion by trick or tweet.

As State Department spokesman Steve Goldstein emailed reporters before he himself was fired, “The Secretary did not speak to the President and is unaware of the reason, but he is grateful for the opportunity to serve, and still believes strongly that public service is a noble calling.”

Like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain, Trump operates by bellowing and avoiding anything that resembles the personal touch. You can almost imagine the president shouting when exposed, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”

But it is difficult to turn Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon Mobil, into a martyr for principle.

Watch: Trump, Touting Pompeo’s ‘Energy,’ Says He Clashed with Tillerson on Iran Deal

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A diplomatic recluse …

For all the inflated hopes that the secretary of State would be one of the adults in the room constraining Trump (along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser), Tillerson spent most of his unhappy tenure at State in his own fortress of solitude.

Disdaining career diplomats and championing a 30 percent cut in his own department’s budget, Tillerson was obsessed with a mythical State Department reorganization plan that was never completed. The high-water mark of his troubled tenure was probably Tillerson calling Trump a “moron” last July during a national security meeting at the Pentagon.

In Trump’s defense, other presidents have blundered with their first pick for secretary of State. Al Haig, Ronald Reagan’s initial choice, lasted less than 18 months in the job. Haig is mostly remembered for inaccurately declaring to reporters after Reagan was shot in 1981, “As for now, I’m in control here, in the White House.”

But Reagan recouped by replacing Haig with the distinguished George Shultz, who played a key role in the winding down of the Cold War. Even though Tillerson’s hawkish replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, has a sterling résumé (West Point and Harvard Law), he is more the tea party congressman that he was for six years than a reassuring international presence like Shultz.

Trump, in his youth, missed the entire counterculture. But the president does follow the 1960s mantra, “If it feels good, do it.” And in firing Tillerson, Trump impulsively did the feel-good thing without considering the consequences of a closely divided 51-to-49 Senate.

To win confirmation as secretary of State, Pompeo has to first gain the approval of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — probably the most anti-Trump body on Capitol Hill.

Committee Chairman Bob Corker has vacillated between attacking Trump for “debasing” the presidency and cozying up to the former reality show host when he was reconsidering his decision to retire from the Senate.

Another committee Republican, Jeff Flake, who is also retiring, has been admirably consistent in his scorn for Trump and is considering opposing the president in 2020. Also on the committee is the mercurial libertarian Rand Paul, who voted against Pompeo for CIA director.

And Pompeo is not apt to find succor among the committee’s 10 Democrats. All of them are internationalists with safe seats and minimal fears of the wrath of Trump.

Hard questions

This is not to predict that the 21-member Foreign Relations Committee will reject Pompeo, although it would take just a single GOP vote to prevent his name from reaching the Senate floor. But what it does suggest is that Pompeo will face next month one of the most grueling confirmation hearings since Trump took office.

Since Tillerson has periodically dissented from Trump’s see-no-evil embrace of Vladimir Putin, the Pompeo hearings are likely to provide a high-visibility platform for debating American policy toward Russia. It was telling that just hours before he was fired, Tillerson called the poisoning by nerve gas of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain “a really egregious act” that appears to have come from Moscow.

Pompeo will also have to defend Trump’s “I don’t need no preconditions or experts” decision to meet face to face with Kim Jong Un. Even those senators who approve of Trump elevating “Rocket Man” to America’s leading enemy are apt to have serious concerns about the president’s approach to high-level negotiations.

The hearings might also provide an opportunity for free-market senators like Flake to challenge the administration over the tariff decision. As outgoing CIA director, Pompeo may have to justify the shaky national security rationale used for the steel and aluminum tariffs under a 1962 law.
What Trump has guaranteed are days of bipartisan scrutiny of his incoherent and impulsive foreign policy. At a time when Trump wants to bask in the booming economy and chase Russia from the headlines, the president has blundered into setting up what may be the most dramatic Cabinet confirmation hearing of his presidency.

In choosing Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo, Trump may have imagined that he has gotten his own Carrie Mathison from “Homeland.” In reality, Trump will have reminded the world of America’s ugly record on torture since Haspel ran a “black site” prison in Thailand after 9/11 where accused terrorists were subjected to waterboarding and other forms of inhumane treatment.

But Pompeo will be the main bout, with the outcome maybe depending on Rand Paul and Jeff Flake, two senators whom Trump loves to attack. It is worth remembering that perhaps the most popular Washington novel in history, “Advise and Consent,” pivoted around a brutal confirmation fight for secretary of State.

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.