Trump’s Next Top Diplomat Can’t Save His Own Face

From Iran to Russia to his Islamophobic remarks, Mike Pompeo was tied up in knots during his confirmation hearings to be secretary of state.

Jim Watson/Getty

Most diplomats, when their old positions put their objectives at risk, look for opportunities to de-escalate conflict. Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, didn’t take the off-ramps that senators repeatedly offered him on Thursday.

Pompeo was never going to have an easy confirmation hearing. As a Tea Party congressman before joining the administration, he had made bigoted statements about American Muslims. As Trump’s CIA director, Pompeo has used bellicose rhetoric against Iran and North Korea, to the delight of the White House, which has recently taken to purging national security officials Trump considered out of sync with his impulses.

Bob Corker, the GOP chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Pompeo his colleagues were justified in wondering if his closeness with the president is “based on deferential willingness to go along to get along.” That kicked off five long and often agonizing hours in which Pompeo found himself caught between the president he seeks to please, the politician he used to be, and the senators he needs to convince.

Several Democratic senators confronted Pompeo with his most disgraceful moment in office: a speech on the House floor laying collective responsibility for terrorism on American Muslims, delivered soon after the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. “The silence of Muslim leaders has been deafening,” Pompeo said in 2013. “Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts.”

Pompeo studiously ignored the numerous U.S. Muslim groups that condemned the attack without reservation—“We are all Bostonians -we mourn with the city,” read a Facebook post from the religious leader of Roxbury’s Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center—and instead thundered that “a special obligation falls on those that are the leaders of that faith… it casts doubt on the commitment to peace by adherents of the Muslim faith.”

Under pressure to account for his inflammatory speech, Pompeo did everything but apologize. He talked about his contacts ‘throughout a broad range of Muslim-majority countries,’ as if to say that some of his best allies are Muslims.

That speech was a critical moment in Pompeo’s political career. Prominent Islamophobes promoted the Kansas congressman, a relationship that has flowered ahead of his potential appointment as secretary of state. Frank Gaffney, who accused David Petraeus of “a kind of submission” to Sharia, boasted that Pompeo’s repeated appearances on his radio show “validate [Pompeo’s] fitness.” Brigitte Gabriel, who runs an organization that the Anti-Defamation League calls “the largest anti-Muslim group in the United States,” called him “a clear leader” in a statement blasted to reporters at the outset of Pompeo’s hearing.

Under senatorial pressure to account for his inflammatory speech, Pompeo did everything but apologize—even when offered the explicit chance to do so. Pompeo talked about his intelligence contacts “throughout a broad range of Muslim-majority countries,” as if to say that some of his best intelligence allies are Muslims. He pretended that he was making the universalist statement that “each and every human being has an obligation to push back against this extremist use of violence,” despite having explicitly and uniquely singled out Muslims at the time for their alleged “special obligation” to do so.

New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker left Pompeo dodging and stammering when he asked the CIA director if he had condemned Gaffney and Gabriel’s bigotry. “I would agree with you that silence in the face of injustice lends strength to that injustice,” Booker noted.

Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat with a chowder-thick accent, finally got Pompeo to concede, “it is true that many leaders spoke out about it,” but added, “I’m not sure we ever get to a point where it’s enough.”

Markey asked Pompeo if he “apologized to the Boston Muslim leadership”—not even the entire “adherents of the Muslim faith” whose “commitment to peace” Pompeo doubted on the floor of the House of Representatives in 2013.

“Senator, it was not my intention, in any respect to suggest that they were part of the chain of events that led to the attack,” Pompeo said.

“The Boston Muslim community came out and condemned it,” Markey continued. “Is there any way in your mind they are complicit?”

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“Senator, to the extent they condemned the attacks, they did what it was that I think we all have the responsibility to do,” Pompeo said, eliding the fact that those condemnations came weeks before his attribution of collective responsibility.

It was not the only moment that saw Pompeo tied into knots over his previous assertions.

As a congressman, Pompeo built his foreign-policy profile thundering ceaselessly against Iran, and warning that the nuclear deal with Tehran was a disaster. A uranium-particle discovery in 2016 was “an extremely serious issue” revealing “the true nature of Iran’s program: to build a nuclear weapon.” But with Trump expected to rip up the deal in May, Pompeo on Thursday suddenly downplayed Iran’s commitment to a nuclear arsenal.

If the U.S. walks away from the deal, Pompeo said, Iran wouldn’t build a bomb, since it’s “in their own economic self-interest” to stay in an accord that Washington will have torn up—despite having stated in 2015 that once the deal begins to formally expire years from now, it will “virtually guarante[e] that Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons.” And despite in 2014 saying that the Iranian nuclear threat was so extreme as to justify a bombing campaign of “under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity,” Pompeo told GOP Sen. Jeff Flake, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal.” For good measure, Pompeo said he “absolutely not” is in favor of an attack on Iran, though he did not abandon his long-standing rejection of the Iran deal.

If the U.S. walks away from a nuclear deal, Pompeo said Thursday, Iran wouldn’t build a bomb. Back in 2015, he said the expiration of the deal would ‘virtually guarante[e] that Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons.’

Flake pressed Pompeo on the implications of tearing up the Iran deal as Trump prepares a diplomatic parley with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who, unlike Iran, already possesses a nuclear arsenal. Pompeo denied that the U.S. reneging on one deal would have any impact on Kim’s willingness to sign another. “The list of things he’s thinking about don’t include other deals throughout history,” Pompeo said.

But Pompeo did tacitly recognize Pyongyang’s close attention to Washington’s proclamations, and issued a rare climbdown. Last summer, Pompeo told a security forum that he was “hopeful we will find a way to separate [Kim’s] regime from this system.” Ahead of the Trump-Kim meetings, Pompeo said he is “not advocating for regime change,” though he did not disavow his prior advocacy of exactly that.

Doing so would likely undermine Trump and his supporters’ enthusiasm for Pompeo, the source of his current political power. But that tied Pompeo in knots as well. Pompeo insisted that the Trump administration had taken “real actions” to “reset the deterrence relationship with respect to Russia.” Confronted with statements from the National Security Agency director and the former national security adviser that Russian behavior remains aggressive, Pompeo later conceded, “Vladimir Putin has not yet received the message.”

But Pompeo left little doubt of his determination to become secretary of state, an enormously powerful position and fourth in the constitutional line of succession to the presidency.

He confirmed that he has been interviewed by Robert Mueller but obfuscated on what Trump discussed with him about then-FBI Director James Comey’s Russia investigation. After declaring his unwavering support for the rule of law, Pompeo was asked if he would resign in protest should Trump fire Mueller or Mueller’s functional boss, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

“My instincts tell me no,” he said, portraying himself as a steadfast force to protect the nation from foreign threats. “My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America’s senior diplomat will be more important at times of political domestic turmoil.”