Washington (CNN)Mike Pompeo, the Trump administration's nominee to lead the State Department, made his case for confirmation on Thursday, but if he hoped to focus on foreign policy, Democrats had other ideas, peppering him with questions about the FBI probe into potential links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
Mueller probe looms large over Pompeo confirmation hearing
The CIA Director, now seeking to become the 70th US secretary of state, faces an uphill confirmation battle in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Republicans have a one-vote edge, but where one GOP lawmaker and at least two Democrats are expected to oppose him.
Even if Republican leaders take special measures to move Pompeo's nomination to the broader Senate, the former House lawmaker still faces a tight vote.
His day-long appearance before the committee veered quickly from various foreign policy challenges facing Washington, to the primary domestic crisis consuming the US, as Sen. Robert Menendez, the leading Democrat on the committee, pressed Pompeo on President Donald Trump and the special counsel investigation into links between his campaign and Russia.
Questions about Trump, Russia and Pompeo's role and outlook on the situation punctuated the hearing throughout the day.
Menendez asked if Trump had ever asked him to "interfere" in the probe by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Pompeo said he had been interviewed by Mueller, and is cooperating with special counsel but refused to offer details or discuss his conversations with the President.
Pompeo said both that Trump has "never asked me to do anything I consider improper" and that he could "not recall" the nature of a March 2017 conversation in which Trump reportedly asked him to get then FBI Director James Comey to pull back.
When Menendez pressed Pompeo about his conversations with Mueller, Pompeo said, "I think it is most appropriate that, while the investigations continue, I not speak to the conversations I've had with the various investigative bodies."
While lawmakers repeatedly returned to the question of Russia and the Mueller probe, there were ample questions about the myriad foreign policy challenges facing the US, all of which would almost immediately demand Pompeo's attention as secretary.
The President has also agreed to an unprecedented summit with North Korea's unpredictable leader amid concerns that Kim Jong Un is close to achieving the ability to reach the US with nuclear-tipped missiles.
Pompeo told Sen. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, that he could envision a ground invasion of North Korea if it was required to deal with a nuclear threat.
"I suppose it's possible we could get to the condition ... where Kim Jong Un was directly threatening and we had information about his activities. Yes, I can imagine times when America would need to take a response that moved past diplomacy," Pompeo said.
He also said it was possible that the US would be forced to conduct a first strike against Pyongyang.
"There may come the day when we see an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of striking the United States of America," Pompeo said. "The President has made clear his intention to prevent that from happening and to the extent that diplomatic tools and other tools that America has as its foreign policy power are unsuccessful, I know that [Defense] Secretary Mattis has been directed to present to the President a set of options that will achieve the President's objective."
Pompeo also said he has "never advocated for regime change," though in July he appeared to suggest taking just such a step.
"It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today," Pompeo said at the Aspen Security Forum. He continued, "so, from the administration's perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two. Right? Separate capacity and someone who might well have intent and break those two apart."
On Thursday, Pompeo took a different stance saying the goal is "to develop an agreement with the North Korean leadership such that the North Korean leadership will step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons, completely and verifiably."
Senators also asked about Iran, another country on which Pompeo is known to have hardline views.
Trump has set a May 12 deadline to either change or pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, creating enormous frustration among US allies in Europe who back the agreement. Pompeo, who tweeted about rolling back the deal as a House lawmaker, avoided a direct answer when asked if he would tell Trump to leave the deal, if a compromise can't be found."If there no chance to fix it, I'll recommend to the President we do our level best to work with our allies to achieve a better outcome and better deal." Pompeo said. "Even after May 12th, senator, there's still much diplomatic work to be done."
In a later exchange, Pompeo added, "Iran wasn't racing to a weapon before the deal. There is no indication that I'm aware of that, if the deal no longer existed, that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon today."
And despite suggesting when he was a House lawmaker that military strikes on Tehran would take care of Iran's nuclear program, Pompeo said Thursday that "my view is that the solution to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and finding ourselves in the same place we are in North Korea in Iran is diplomacy."
Pompeo sidestepped questions about President Trump's threat to conduct military strikes on Syria in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on a rebel stronghold that left dozens dead, including many children and women. The debate on how to respond is ongoing, Pompeo said.
He stressed that the goal in Syria is to achieve, through diplomacy, greater stability, less violence, and, referring to leader Bashar al-Assad, establish "a post-Assad Syria one day."
Asked about his plans for the State Department, Pompeo said he would work to build the agency back up. "I spent a lot of time on the recruiting of human capital" at the CIA, he said. "I want to do that at the State Department too," he said.
Lawmakers questioned some of Pompeo's positions during his House career, particularly comments he has made about Muslims and the LGBTQ community. Pressed by New Jersey Democrat Cory Booker, Pompeo professed that he is still personally opposed to gay marriage, but said he would support LGBTQ employees at the State Department.
Pompeo has promoted the conspiracy theory that a fifth column of Muslims intent on undermining the US exists within the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League, and said that American Muslim leaders are "potentially complicit" in past and future terrorist attacks by Muslims.
Asked by Booker whether he was pushing for the creation of "a special class of people in this country based upon their religion," Pompeo said that "when it comes to making sure we don't have terrorists brewing in places where Muslims congregate, there is a special place, right? It's more than a duty, it's an opportunity, right?"
He added that, "I promise you that I will treat persons of each faith or no faith with the dignity and respect that they deserve."
Throughout the hearing, lawmakers repeatedly asked about Russia.
Pompeo confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that WikiLeaks -- the group behind the leak of Democratic emails during the election campaign -- was hostile to the US.
Asked about a tweet from Trump blaming tensions with Russia on the Mueller investigation, Pompeo told Sen. Jeanne Shaheen that problems with Russia are "caused by Russian bad behavior" and said the administration would be doing more to crack down on Moscow.
"We need to push back in each place that we confront them and by every vector," Pompeo said.
He refused to answer questions about the Russia investigation, saying, "I came here today to talk about my qualifications to be secretary of state."
But when he was asked if he would resign if Trump fires Mueller, Pompeo said he likely would not. "My instincts tell me no. ... My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America's senior diplomat will be more important," Pompeo said.
The most senior lawmakers on the committee both touched on Pompeo's relationship with Trump, and specifically on the question of whether he will stand up to the President.
Menendez also questioned whether Pompeo would exert any independence "after a nearly a year and a half of reckoning with President Trump's erratic approach to foreign policy, which has left our allies confused and our adversaries emboldened."
"Will you stand up to President Trump and say, 'No, you are wrong in that view'? Or will you be a yes man?" Menendez asked. "Americans are scared that this President -- the commander in chaos -- will lead them into war. This is not a time for taunts and tweets."
"What is your real plan? Will you be a voice of reason or will you support the President's worst instincts?" Menendez asked.
The chairman of the committee, Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker, echoed those concerns.
"I think it's fair for members to ask whether your relationship is routed in a candid, healthy, give-and-take dynamic, or whether it's based on deferential willingness to go along to get along," he said.