WASHINGTON - Leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee challenged Mike Pompeo on Thursday to explain how he would restrain President Trump from acting impulsively on the global stage, as the secretary of state nominee faced tough questioning about his close relationship with the president.
"Many strong voices have been terminated or resigned," panel chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told Pompeo, adding that "it's fair for our members to ask if your relationship is rooted in a candid, healthy, give-and-take dynamic or whether it's based on deferential willingness to go along to get along."
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the top Democrat on the panel, was more pointed in his questions, asking Pompeo: "Will you stand up to President Trump and say 'no, you are wrong in that view?' Or will you be a yes man?"
Pompeo pushed back as his confirmation hearing got underway, stressing that as CIA director, "I was able to persuade him" when they disagreed on policy, and would use their close relationship to influence the president in a positive direction.
Pompeo's predecessor, Rex Tillerson, left the helm of the State Department at the end of last month after a testy tenure. Tillerson and the president clashed over several issues, particularly the Iran nuclear deal, on which Trump and Pompeo are more closely ideologically aligned.
In his opening statement, Pompeo stressed that he would commit to reinvigorating the State Department, where morale and staffing flagged under Tillerson. Pompeo pledged to be a "good platoon leader," fill vacancies and "empower" the diplomatic corps.
As the hearing began, a protester who said he was a veteran and former diplomat shouted "this man is not a diplomat" and was escorted out of the room.
Several senior GOP figures turned out to advocate for Pompeo, including former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole, who addressed the panel, and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who sat three rows behind Pompeo during the hearing. Haley had a tense relationship with Tillerson.
Senators who have recently met with Pompeo said he appears to be preparing for the job and "doing his homework," as one aide put it - including contacting eight former secretaries of state in advance of his hearing. But many Democrats on the panel said they are concerned he might be missing a critical attribute for the job: a willingness to stand up to Trump when the situation requires it.
"His reputation is not as strong on standing up to the president," Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., a senior member of the panel, told reporters Tuesday, comparing Pompeo to his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who "we know disagreed with the president on several important issues" - and possibly lost his job for it.
Pompeo, who serves as the CIA director, is expected to present his relationship with the president as an asset to taking over the State Department, where according to prepared remarks, he believes employees "hope to be empowered in their roles, and to have a clear understanding of the president's mission."
Trump wished Pompeo well in the hearing in an early morning tweet, saying he "will be a great Secretary of State!"
Pompeo is preparing to use the hearing to modify his hawkish reputation, and recast his relationship with senators worried about steps he might take in dealing with a number of consequential choices and crises, including North Korea and Iran.
Both Republicans and Democrats are expected to grill Pompeo on whether he will recommend that Trump withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal next month, as the president has threatened to do. His decision could affect negotiations expected later this spring over North Korea's nuclear program, so the senators probably will ask him about his planned strategy for dealing with both countries.
Even more imminent is a possible military strike to punish the Syrian government for a suspected chemical weapons attack against civilians last weekend and Trump's announcement that he wants to withdraw the estimated 2,000 U.S. troops in the country. Pompeo will be asked about his plans to position the United States so it can be at the table for peace talks aiming to rebuild the shattered country. The only talks actually happening now are being run by Russia, Iran and Turkey, without U.S. input.
Pompeo is also expected to be queried on statements he made during his tenure leading the CIA regarding the intelligence community's assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Some senators are planning to ask Pompeo about his stated skepticism about climate change and opposition to the Paris climate agreement. During his confirmation hearing last year to head the CIA, Pompeo said it was "ignorant, dangerous and absolutely unbelievable" to elevate climate change to a top national security threat.
Pompeo is also expected to face questions about what tone he will set as chief diplomat on matters such as gay rights and same-sex marriage - which Pompeo has opposed - and incendiary statements he has made about Muslims and terrorism.
"There is a deeply seated impression in many people in foreign policy that the United States has stopped leading in the world," said Nicholas Burns, a former career Foreign Service officer who rose to the third-highest position in the State Department.
Citing the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and weakened relations with many European countries, Burns added, "Can we lead in a demonstrative way to reinforce alliances?"
Critics in both parties have looked on in alarm as the State Department's role in shaping and communicating U.S. policy faded during Tillerson's tenure. Dozens of senior officials resigned or were pushed out. Many jobs remain unfilled, with lower-level officials temporarily filling them. With the administration proposing State Department budget cuts of 31 percent, fewer young people are being recruited to join the next generation of diplomats.
Pompeo already has built a reservoir of goodwill at the department. He has attended briefings and reached out to former diplomats to ask what works and what doesn't. In contrast, Tillerson did not even speak with his immediate predecessor, John F. Kerry, before he arrived on the job.
"I obviously have disagreements with him, on climate change or on the Iran nuclear deal," Burns said. "But I do think he has leadership qualities. If he gets through, he has the potential to rebuild the State Department. That's what we all of want, a leader who can restore that and act on behalf of America."