As crises swirl, US Senate to grill Pompeo for secretary of state

Washington (United States) (AFP) –


President Donald Trump's pick for top US diplomat faces a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday that could not come sooner, as tensions soar with Russia and Syria and a trade spat with China threatens to snowball.

Mike Pompeo, currently the director of the CIA, has been tapped to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, in what could be one of the more consequential of many personnel shakeups since Trump took office 14 months ago.

Pompeo is a known entity for Trump, someone who briefed the president nearly daily and shares a gung ho attitude towards Iran.

And as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, he has already been vetted by the US Senate, where 14 Democrats joined Republicans in confirming him to that post.

It appears at least one Democrat will be needed to get Pompeo successfully through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which holds the hearing Thursday and is expected to vote on Pompeo in the coming weeks.

The committee has 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats, and Republican Rand Paul has already expressed his opposition to Pompeo, for the latter's support of the Iraq war and his aggressive posture against Iran.

But Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican hawk on foreign policy, said Pompeo would be taking over during a "dangerous" period globally, and that "I think he's the right guy at the right time."

Trump has gone without a top US diplomat for nearly a month.

In that time he has threatened a trade war with China, blamed Russia and Syria for a suspected chemical attack that killed more than 40 people, and ratcheted up anti-Russia rhetoric on Twitter, including Wednesday's warning that "missiles will be coming" in response to the chemical atrocity in Syria.

And on May 12, exactly one month from the hearing, Trump is to pronounce on the fate of the Iran nuclear deal, a pact Pompeo strenuously opposed in 2015 when he was a member of Congress.

Pompeo has recently made the rounds meeting senators including Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, who described their "very good meeting" but did not declare whether he would support the nominee.

Democrats have said they want to see a new secretary of state considerably more engaged with the agency he oversees.

"He's got a high bar for a lot of us. He's got to commit to ending this assault on the State Department personnel that Tillerson began," said Senator Chris Murphy, who is the foreign relations committee.

And with Trump recently appointing hawkish conservative John Bolton as his national security advisor, Murphy said he wanted to scrutinize Pompeo over potential flashpoints like Korea and Syria.

"A lot of us are worried about the combination of Pompeo and Bolton putting a set of military options on the table for the president that could do real damage to our national security," Murphy said.