It shouldn’t have been this difficult for Mike Pompeo.
Nine years ago, Hillary Clinton—hardly an uncontroversial pick—won the support of 94 senators when she was nominated to be secretary of state. Four years later, John Kerry got the same number of votes. Condoleezza Rice received 85 votes, and even that wasn’t considered a ringing endorsement at the time.
But if Pompeo, the CIA director, is confirmed next week to be President Donald Trump’s next top diplomat, it will be because he was scraping for votes at the eleventh hour, just barely clearing the 50-vote threshold.
“Everybody’s being creative. I know people are searching for reasons to be against a qualified nominee, and I don’t even want to give them a hard time,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast. “I understand that the base on the left just cannot stand anything that makes it look like it’s a proxy vote in support of Trump. I got it.”
It’s historically unusual for a secretary of state nominee to face such a tough confirmation battle. Pompeo is on track to become the first nominee for the post in nearly a century to receive an unfavorable vote out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With at least one Democratic senator set to vote for Pompeo, he’s likely to be confirmed by the full Senate next week—but just barely.
An aide close to the process said the administration was surprised at the level of partisan resistance the White House encountered for the usually non-controversial post, especially because Democrats haven’t pinpointed any glaring strategic error on the White House’s part.
But it wasn’t just Democrats who were growing tired of the seemingly endless march of nominees for the same positions—from the State Department to the Department of Health and Human Services.
A Senate Republican aide, granted anonymity to give a candid assessment, attributed the uphill battle to “nomination fatigue.” The constant looming possibility that Trump will move to fire one of his top officials is angering Republican senators who, in the early stages of the Trump presidency, fought tooth and nail to confirm some of the president’s more controversial nominees. Those officials include Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt, both of whom have been on the chopping block.
Those factors—fueled by the near-daily chaos that engulfs Washington—have made Republican lawmakers less interested in going to bat more aggressively for Trump’s nominees, even one such as Pompeo whom they all view as eminently qualified.
“I see a frustration with the revolving door, and I think members up here are looking at this and saying, we’d really like to establish working relationships with these people, and allow them to establish their teams,” Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) told The Daily Beast.
Both Clinton and Kerry had long been punching bags of the Republican party, and were no strangers to controversy throughout their political lives. But they were overwhelmingly confirmed anyway, in part because lawmakers have historically given a president a heightened level of deference to staff his cabinet, particularly early on in an administration.
“You know they said things during their presidential campaigns that Republicans didn’t agree with, but they still sailed through,” Corker said, referring to Democrats’ objections to Pompeo’s past statements about LGBT individuals and Muslims.
But this time around, Senate Democrats haven’t been as willing to give Trump the same amount of leeway. Many of them have privately acknowledged that Pompeo is qualified; but they were more concerned that their vote would represent a positive review of the Trump administration’s foreign policy—at a time when Syria remains a geopolitical and humanitarian disaster, and just days after the White House overruled an announcement from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, regarding new sanctions on Russia.
“It’s not so much that Pompeo is a flaming disaster,” a senior Senate Democratic aide told The Daily Beast, requesting anonymity to candidly discuss internal deliberations. “A lot is going on in the world, and that’s manifesting itself in a practical way rather than a theoretical way. And that ratchets up the concern about who fills this spot.”
As the Trump administration continues to face more turmoil both at home and abroad, Democrats and even some Republicans on Capitol Hill haven’t been as willing to allow the president to staff his cabinet as he pleases. For Democrats in particular, that raises the bar for each new nominee who—in the case of Pompeo’s nomination last year to be CIA director—they might have supported in the nascent days of the Trump presidency.
“You might have previously said, ‘this isn’t my favorite choice, but I’m willing to give the president some latitude here,’” said the aide. “But more recently, with the president acting more erratic, and how he’s handling geopolitical strategic decisions … it’s not comforting these days to say, ‘I really don’t like this person but maybe they deserve this minimal threshold [to get confirmed].’”
Democrats often took solace in the fact that Rex Tillerson, the former secretary of state, aired his disagreements with the president and tried to move him closer to mainstream positions on a plethora of important policy decisions. But in Pompeo, they see a “yes man.” The Trump-Pompeo relationship has been relatively drama-free, and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told reporters on Wednesday that Pompeo has become a “trusted adviser” to the president. Because of that close relationship, Democrats reasoned that Pompeo was so deeply connected to many of the controversial decisions the president has made on issues involving national security and foreign policy—actions that they have, for the most part, opposed.
The White House—recognizing that the margin for error remains extremely slim—has in recent days significantly ramped up its campaign to confirm Pompeo, with the president in a series of tweets accusing Democrats of obstructionism. On Wednesday, Conway and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR), and increasingly loyal Trump ally, held a conference call with reporters during which Cotton tried to shame certain Democratic senators into voting for Pompeo.
“I cannot imagine that senators like Joe Manchin from West Virginia and Joe Donnelly from Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota, who are facing re-election in states that our president won by landslide elections, are going to oppose an obviously qualified nominee for whom they voted last year,” Cotton said, referring to their votes in favor of Pompeo’s nomination last year to be CIA director.
Pompeo’s allies were hoping that Tuesday night’s revelation that the CIA chief met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang would help convince Democrats that, despite their characterizations of him, Pompeo was capable of engaging in successful diplomacy with America’s adversaries.
“The fact that the president has enough confidence in him to send him over there ahead of confirmation speaks loudly,” Sen. David Perdue (R-GA), a member of the foreign relations committee, told The Daily Beast. “I feel like the other side just wants some drama on this, and there’s really none to be had.”
So far, it hasn’t worked. As of Thursday, not a single Democrat on the foreign relations committee was on record supporting him. Just one Democratic senator, Heitkamp, has committed to voting for Pompeo.
It might be all he needs.
—Additional reporting by Jackie Kucinich