Outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo confirmed Thursday that he has been interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian election interference.
“I spoke with special counsel Mueller, who interviewed me, requested an interview,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is considering his nomination to become secretary of state. “I cooperated.”
But he declined to answer most questions about the investigation, including one on whether he agreed with President Donald Trump’s assessment that the Mueller probe is a “witch hunt.” He stressed that during his 15-month tenue, the CIA had cooperated with Mueller and investigations in the House and Senate.
Democrats expressed disappointment in Pompeo’s testimony, and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, seemed to anticipate a rough road ahead for Pompeo’s nomination to become Trump’s second secretary of state after the firing last month of Rex Tillerson.
With at least one Republican member of the committee — Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — opposing the nomination, Pompeo would need Democratic support to get a favorable recommendation from the committee before a full Senate vote. The committee chairman, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, offered his full endorsement of Pompeo after the hearing.
Pompeo, Menendez told reporters after the hearing, wasn’t “forthcoming and credible on critical issues” such as Russia. “It makes me worry about this nominee,” he said. Still, Menendez said he would reserve judgment until he’d had a chance to review the hearing’s transcript and talk to Mueller about Pompeo’s assertion that he couldn’t divulge what FBI investigators had asked.
NBC News, citing sources, reported in January that Mueller had interviewed Pompeo.
Moreover, Pompeo failed to prove to Democrats that he can be someone who is comfortable telling the president things he might not want to hear, Menendez said. “They’re looking for a secretary of state who will not give in to the president’s worst instincts and impulses when we are talking about the lives of our sons and daughters who serve in the military of the United States [...] and I don’t know that they walked away feeling that Director Pompeo met that standard,” Menendez said. “So we’ll see.”
Russia and Mueller’s probe were not the only topics where Pompeo and Democrats clashed. Other issues included whether US decisions to engage in military action require the approval of Congress — especially with regard to potential strikes against the Syrian government — and Pompeo’s views on Islam and LGBTQ rights.
In one especially dramatic moment, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey grilled Pompeo on whether he still believed gay sex was a “perversion.”
“Senator, we have married gay couples at the CIA. […] I treated them with the exact same set of rights,” Pompeo said in response. “My respect for every individual, regardless of sexual orientation, is the same.”
But Booker responded that Pompeo’s personal views do matter since, as secretary of state, he would become the chief international proponent of American values. “I do not necessarily concur that you are purporting the values of our nation when you believe that there are people in our country who are perverse,” Booker said.
Pompeo said he still agreed with the CIA’s conclusion last year that Russia had meddled in the 2016 presidential election, and he declined to endorse Trump’s view that the investigations into Russian meddling were responsible for the deterioration in US-Russia relations. “Bad blood” between the two countries “is caused by Russian bad behavior,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo also said that he and the CIA have cooperated with requests from Senate and House Intelligence committees for information as part of their investigations into Russian election interference. “I think the leaders of those two organizations in a bipartisan way would say that I’ve been cooperative,” he said.
Pompeo, however, declined to reveal details about conversations he had with Trump in response to questions from Menendez about a Washington Post story that said Trump, in a March 2017 meeting with Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, had asked that Coats intervene in the FBI’s Russia investigation.
“I’m not going to talk about the conversations the president and I had,” Pompeo said. “But I will tell you this, the article’s suggestion that he asked me to do anything that was improper is false.”
But Pompeo told Menendez he doesn’t remember what, exactly, Trump asked him that day. “Senator, I don’t recall,” Pompeo said. “I don’t recall what he asked me that day, precisely. But I have to tell you, I’m with the president an awful lot, he has never asked me to do anything that I considered remotely improper.”
Pompeo urged people not to make “inferences,” negative or positive, about his refusal to answer certain questions. He said he wasn’t asserting executive privilege in declining to answer; rather, he believes it’s “appropriate” not to speak about the the Mueller and congressional Russia probes while they’re ongoing.
Pompeo also told Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen that he would advocate “every day” for fully implementing the Russian sanctions Congress passed last year — something the administration has not yet done, though it did implement other sanctions. “Vladimir Putin has not yet received the message sufficiently and we need to continue to work at that,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo said he likely would not resign in protest if Trump fired Mueller or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing the investigation, though.
“My instincts tell me no,” Pompeo told Delaware Sen. Chris Coons. “My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America’s senior diplomat will be more important at increased times of political domestic turmoil.”
Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat on the committee who voted for Pompeo to be CIA director, said he has concerns with Pompeo's abilities as a diplomat due to “the fire and fury of some of his comments in the past.”
“I walked in with that worry and he did not make that worry go away,” Kaine said after the hearing, adding that he would make up his mind on whether to support Pompeo "probably in the next day or so."
Corker said he expects the committee to vote on the nomination on Monday, April 23, and for the full Senate to vote that same week. Even if the committee returns an unfavorable recommendation, the full Senate could still proceed to a vote to confirm him. “If that were to happen, it would be the first time that any secretary of state nominee would not have received a favorable vote of the committee,” Menendez said, adding that he believes the administration should nominate someone else if the committee gives Pompeo an unfavorable recommendation.
“Let’s see what happens,” Corker said when asked about the prospect of advancing the vote to the floor with an unfavorable recommendation.
Hannah Allam contributed reporting.