President Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he would be re-shuffling his foreign policy team gave congressional Democrats two new, high-profile opportunities to press the administration on a host of sensitive political matters. Early indications suggest that they will try to turn the upcoming confirmation hearings for Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel into a fresh political hell for the administration.
Pompeo, the CIA director, will be nominated for the role of secretary of state while Haspel, his deputy, is slated to take over the CIA, after Trump fired his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday. Lawmakers said they were troubled at the swift sacking at Foggy Bottom, which comes at a time when the United States is dealing with continued Russian aggression worldwide and a possible summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
But in its wake lies an opportunity for the minority party: the rare opportunity to pin the administration.
“There’s so many issues. Russia sanctions, North Korea, Syria, the Middle East—it’s a fertile field for questioning,” Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) told The Daily Beast.
Both Pompeo and Haspel will have to maneuver carefully through their respective hearings. It takes only 50 votes to make it through the Senate. But Republicans only have 51 members in the chamber including one, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), back home in Arizona as he battles brain cancer.
Such a slim margin for error means that even the smallest misstep or over-obfuscation could prove costly. It also invites Democrats to press the nominees on politically-tricky matters such as Trump’s posturing on Russia, his alleged interference with an investigation into the 2016 election meddling, and his administration’s refusal to immediately implement mandatory sanctions against Moscow.
“It’s the best opportunity for oversight of the executive branch, and we have to use that opportunity on a bipartisan basis on Russia, on Iran, on North Korea, on the question of the dismantling of the professional staff at the State Department—all of that will be discussed in the confirmation hearings,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) told The Daily Beast.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee said it expects to hold Pompeo’s confirmation hearing in April. The Senate Intelligence Committee, which will consider Haspel’s nomination, hasn’t yet scheduled a hearing. Tillerson’s last day will be March 31.
There is an informal edict within the Senate that the president, especially on matters of foreign policy, should be given broad authority to choose his top officials. And during the first few weeks and months of the Trump presidency, lawmakers were largely deferential to his cabinet picks, with a few notable exceptions. Sixty-six senators voted in favor of Pompeo’s confirmation but Tillerson garnered only 56 votes—in part due to concerns he wasn’t up to the job.
Much has changed since then and the expectation for Pompeo and Haspel is that those margins will be even thinner. Democrats, in particular, have been repeatedly distressed by Trump’s foreign policy and despondent at the unwillingness of congressional Republicans—primarily those in the House—to execute more effective oversight. That the confirmation hearings will be coming on the heels of Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee closing their probe into Russia’s election meddling was seen as semi-divine justice for Democrats.
“With the planning process we have all come to expect from the Trump White House we can assume he didn’t think this through in terms of timing,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime Democratic operative. “But right as he got rid of the House Intelligence Committee [investigation], he has opened up two new places of inquiries and hearings in a body that isn’t quite as much his lapdog.”
For Pompeo, this could prove especially delicate. He will likely be asked about his presence during a meeting last June, detailed by The Washington Post, when Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to press then-FBI Director James Comey to lay off of former national security adviser Michael Flynn as part of the agency’s Russia investigation.
“Neither one of them are going to answer a single thing about what they said to the president,” former Sen. Ted Kaufman (D-DE), who sat through confirmation hearings as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Daily Beast. “I would be shocked if they did that. It’s not right. It’s wrong. And there should be strong action against it if the Congress were a separate branch of government. But clearly Republicans in the Congress have decided they are not a separate branch.”
But it’s not just the Russia investigation that Democrats are eager to spotlight at the upcoming hearings. For weeks, they and some Republicans have taken issue with the administration’s decision to not immediately implement mandatory sanctions against Russian defense and intelligence sectors. Under Tillerson, the department said the sanctions weren’t necessary because the mere threat was already acting as a “deterrent” against foreign investment in those Russian firms.
“Some of the things that were promised in Secretary Tillerson’s confirmation hearings still have not been forthcoming from this administration—a clear strategy with regards to Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) said in an interview. “I think Secretary Tillerson, unfortunately, chose to focus on restructuring and slashing funding in the State Department. And that took some of his focus on developing and delivering to the people of the United States and to the Senate a clear-eyed strategy for how to deal with these significant challenges.”
While Tillerson has shown a greater willingness than the president to call out Russia publicly, Democrats have argued it hasn’t been enough. They’ve also been critical of what they see as Tillerson’s systematic dismantling of the State Department in a way that hampers U.S. diplomacy efforts.
“We have a commander-in-chaos. He continues to undermine the very essence of diplomacy as a key tool for national security. He has emaciated the State Department,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And now at a moment in which we are dealing with North Korea, Iran and Russia’s aggressions in the world, we have instability at the State Department.”
Haspel also seems destined to have a tough road to final confirmation, given her involvement with the CIA’s torture program under the Bush administration—much of which remains classified. At least one Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), already announced that he would oppose her nomination.
“What is on the public record is exceptionally troubling, and what is even more troubling is the fact that this has all been covered up over the years because they won’t declassify it,” Wyden told The Daily Beast.