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Senators Ask Secretary Of State Nominee Mike Pompeo 'Will You Be A Yes Man?'


All right, to another story now - will he be a yes man, or will he challenge President Trump when necessary and offer good counsel? Those are some of the questions Mike Pompeo, nominee for secretary of state, faced at his confirmation hearing today. Pompeo says he will carry out, quote, "relentless diplomacy," and he says he wants to help the State Department restore its swagger. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: CIA director, former congressman and Army Captain Mike Pompeo is trying to change the conversation about his record. He says he's not advocating for regime change in North Korea, and he'd prefer to fix the Iran nuclear deal rather than walk away.


MIKE POMPEO: I know some of you've read - the story is I'm a hawk; I'm a hard-liner. There's no one who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war like someone who's served in uniform. It's the last resort. It must always be so.

KELEMEN: Just minutes into the hearing, a former State Department official-turned-activist, Ann Wright, was dragged out of the room, shouting in protest.


ANN WRIGHT: This man is no diplomat. War...


KELEMEN: Pompeo insists that he'll work to empower a demoralized workforce at the State Department and fill many vacancies. Democrats also pressed him on the advice he will give to the president.


BOB MENENDEZ: Will you be a voice of reason, or will you support the president's worst instincts?

KELEMEN: That's ranking Democrat Bob Menendez, who sought insight into Pompeo's conversations with Trump about the Russia election meddling investigation.


POMPEO: I'm with the president an awful lot. He has never asked me to do anything that I considered...


POMPEO: ...Remotely improper.

MENENDEZ: When you say you're not going to talk about that conversation, you're not asserting executive privilege, are you?

POMPEO: No, Senator. I believe - and I think you will agree - we'll talk about foreign policy issues. We'll talk about advice that...

MENENDEZ: This has a connotation of foreign policy because this is about Russia.

KELEMEN: Mike Pompeo dodged many questions about the Russia investigation, but he did confirm that he's been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller, and he's vowing a tough line on Russia. The Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, offered some words of caution, saying the president often acts impulsively, and Pompeo needs to give good counsel.


BOB CORKER: That's why I think it's fair for our members to ask whether 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.

KELEMEN: There are some decisions looming for the State Department, and Pompeo is hoping for a quick confirmation. President Trump has accepted an invitation to meet North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, as early as May. That month, he also has to decide whether to stay in the Iran nuclear deal and continue with sanctions relief. Whatever the president decides, Pompeo doesn't think Iran will ramp up its nuclear program again.


POMPEO: Iran wasn't racing to a weapon before the deal. There is no indication that I'm aware of that if that deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon today.

KELEMEN: It was a surprising comment from a former congressman who just a few years ago advocated for a military strike against Iran to destroy its nuclear capacity. Pompeo's past controversial statements about Muslims and gays were raised by Democratic Senator Cory Booker, who points out that Pompeo once called homosexuality a perversion.


CORY BOOKER: You're going to be representing this country and their values abroad in nations where gay individuals are under untold persecution, untold violence. Your views do matter. You're going to be dealing with Muslim states and on Muslim issues.

KELEMEN: Pompeo says he's worked closely with Muslim leaders as head of the CIA. And though he still doesn't support same-sex marriage, he says he won't discriminate in the workplace. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

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