WASHINGTON (AP) - Mike Pompeo, the CIA director nominated to be secretary of state, defended the Trump administration’s efforts to push back on aggression from Russia at his confirmation hearing Thursday while suggesting more sanctions on Moscow are still needed. Yet he dodged repeatedly when Democrats tried to pin him down on President Donald Trump’s handling of the special investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Pompeo confirmed for the first time publicly that he’s been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating potential ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign and possible obstruction of justice issues. But he wouldn’t answer questions about the contents of the interview, arguing it would be improper since, as CIA director in charge of overseas intelligence gathering, he has been a “participant” in Mueller’s probe.
“I cooperated,” Pompeo said.
Under questioning, he said he would be unlikely to resign as secretary of state if Trump were to fire Mueller. Lawmakers are concerned the president may seek Mueller’s ouster to try to shut down the investigation, and the White House has said it believes Trump does have the authority to fire him if desired.
“My instincts tell me no,” Pompeo said. “My instincts tell me my obligation to continue to serve as America’s senior diplomat will be more important in times of domestic political turmoil.”
As for the prospect of leading the State Department, Pompeo pledged to make the department as central to national security decisions as the intelligence agency he now heads.
Throughout the hearing, he drew a sharp contrast with his ousted predecessor, Rex Tillerson. He lamented the “demoralizing” vacancies at the top echelons of the department during Tillerson’s tenure and said he planned to fill those vacancies, asking the Senate’s help to get nominees confirmed.
He cast his close connection to Trump as an advantage that would help him restore the significance of the department.
“My relationship with President Trump is due to one thing: We’ve demonstrated value to him at the CIA. So, in turn, he has come to rely on us,” Pompeo said. “I intend to ensure that the Department of State will be just as central to the president’s policies and the national security of the United States.”