U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, narrowly won approval from a Senate panel on Monday, paving the way for the CIA director to become America’s top diplomat.
A dramatic last-minute flip by Republican Senator Rand Paul, who for weeks had expressed opposition to Pompeo over his stance on the Iraq war and surveillance issues, gave the spy chief a narrow edge. That allowed Trump to avoid an embarrassing setback as he sought to replace Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state he fired in March.
If Paul had not reversed his position, Pompeo would have become the first secretary of state-nominee on record to be rejected by the committee, according to the Senate Historical Office.
Paul said he changed his vote after speaking to Trump “several times,” and after meeting with Pompeo. The maverick Republican said he was assured that Trump believes the Iraq war was a mistake and wants to end the U.S. presence there and in Afghanistan.
“I haven’t been given anything, haven’t been promised anything,” Paul said. “The president has assured me there is going to be a discussion” on those issues.
As for Pompeo, Paul said, “He’s assured me that he’s learned the lesson” of Iraq and “has incorporated the idea that the Iraq war was a mistake.”
Pompeo’s nomination will now proceed to a vote by the complete Senate, where the support of at least three Democrats guarantees its passage. A negative vote could have unsettled delicate negotiations with North Korea.
Pompeo has taken the lead in arranging a historic summit between Trump and Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean leader. The summit aims to reduce tensions brought about by Pyongyang’s development of a nuclear weapon and ballistic missiles powerful enough to deliver it to American soil.
Pompeo secretly traveled to Pyongyang in late March to meet with Kim to lay the groundwork for the meeting, which could take place in early June.
Director of the Central Intelligence Agency since the beginning of the Trump administration, Pompeo has become one of the president’s closest advisers. He would replace Tillerson, the former oil executive who was pushed out in March after a rocky relationship with the White House and a management approach that left the State Department understaffed and demoralized.
But Democrats have assailed Pompeo for a record of bellicose statements they say are at odds with his prospective job as the top U.S. diplomat, and also have cited anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ statements he has made in the past.
Others, like Senator Maggie Hassan, said they worried Pompeo was too close politically to the president to stand up to him if need be. Hassan said she was “concerned that Mr. Pompeo would be unable to rise above a partisan perspective when making foreign policy decisions.”