Never in its 202-year history had the Senate Foreign Relations Committee given a public thumbs-down to a presidential nominee for secretary of state.
Until a few minutes before the panel met late Monday afternoon, it looked like CIA Director Mike Pompeo would carry that unprecedented blemish to the Senate floor later this week as he bids to replace Rex Tillerson atop the State Department. But just as the committee was gathering to consider President Trump’s pick, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky renounced his early opposition to Pompeo and gave him a decisive vote of support. Citing Pompeo’s hawkish views and his support for the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Paul had previously indicated he would side with the panel’s 10 Democrats in opposition, denying him the majority needed for a favorable recommendation.
In a series of tweets, Paul said he had spoken repeatedly both with Trump and Pompeo on Monday afternoon. “President Trump believes that Iraq was a mistake, that regime change has destabilized the region, and that we must end our involvement with Afghanistan,” he wrote. “Having received assurances from President Trump and Director Pompeo that he agrees with the President on these important issues, I have decided to support his nomination to be our next Secretary of State.”
Paul elaborated on his thinking at the meeting before the vote. “I have not been given anything or promised anything,” he said, though he added that Trump had agreed to a discussion on his libertarian views on government surveillance. “I have changed my mind,” Paul said. “I decided to go ahead and vote for Director Pompeo because he assured me has learned the lesson and time will tell if those assurances are true.”
Paul, who has aligned himself with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, had criticized Pompeo as out of step with the president. “My biggest problem with your nomination is I don’t think it reflects the millions of people who voted for President Trump who actually voted for him because they thought he’d be different,” Paul told him at his confirmation hearing.
What may have helped persuade Paul to change his mind was the knowledge that the committee’s rejection of Pompeo would soon be rendered moot. The CIA director had received crucial endorsements earlier Monday afternoon from Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who joined Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota in committing their votes for Trump’s pick on the floor—virtually assuring his confirmation by the full Senate.
Republicans have a slim, 51 to 49 seat majority, and although Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona was also undecided, Paul was expected to be the only member of the party to oppose Pompeo. The support of at least three Democrats would have been enough. Had Paul not flipped at the last minute, Pompeo could have become the first Cabinet officer to win confirmation despite an unfavorable vote in committee since 1945, when former Vice President Henry Wallace overcame a similar rebuke in his bid to be commerce secretary in the final months of the Franklin Roosevelt administration.
Despite Paul’s support, the tight committee margin made for a difficult vote for Republicans. Because Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia had been absent, technically the vote was tied at 10 to 10. Isakson voted yes by proxy, but the committee rules require members to be present to send a nomination to the floor. The committee’s chairman, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, tried to get Democrats to agree to waive that rule, but they went into a brief recess early Monday evening to figure out what to do. Ultimately, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware agreed to vote present instead of no to allow the nomination to move forward instead of reconvening late in the night once Isakson returned from a funeral. Coons said he had expected the nomination to fail with Paul’s opposition, but once Paul flipped, he understood the vote would be successful one way or another.
In the last week, Trump administration officials had made an aggressive push either to flip Paul or to persuade Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee that their opposition to Pompeo in the panel vote would be for naught. “Mike Pompeo will be confirmed,” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an ally of the former Kansas congressman when the two served together in the House, vowed to reporters on a conference call arranged by the White House. “If the munchkin Metternichs on the Foreign Relations Committee want to vote against Mike Pompeo, the Senate will set them straight,” he added in a reference to the 19th-century chancellor of the Austrian empire who was toppled by revolution. (The Harvard-trained Cotton later referred to Democrats as “two-bit Talleyrands”—an apparent reference to the French diplomat who betrayed Napoleon.)
The revelation that Pompeo had met secretly with Kim Jong Un in North Korea seemed to be aimed at bolstering his diplomatic credentials and and giving the appearance that he was already serving as a crucial envoy for Trump. But it did not move Democrats worried that, alongside National-Security Adviser John Bolton, he would embolden the president’s penchant for belligerence and that his ideological conservatism would poorly represent America abroad. “Just like I don’t want to vote for anti-science people to be the head of science agencies or anti-education people to be head of education agencies, I don’t want to vote for people who are anti-diplomatic,” said Senator Tim Kaine, the Virginia Democrat who had voted for Pompeo to serve as CIA director.
Cotton and other Trump surrogates argued that Democrats were opposing Pompeo out of blind partisanship and hatred of Trump—particularly those like Senators Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Tim Kaine of Virginia who had backed Pompeo’s nomination to lead the CIA barely a year ago. “At some point, Democrats have to decide if they love this country more than they hate this president,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Fox & Friends on Monday. Trump added his own barb on Twitter: “Hard to believe Obstructionists May vote against Mike Pompeo for Secretary of State.”
Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon-Mobil, had survived a rough confirmation battle amid concerns about his lack of diplomatic experience and his ties to Vladimir Putin. Paul’s last-minute switch was reminiscent of Senator Marco Rubio’s wavering on Tillerson; the Florida Republican who, like Paul, had been a former rival of Trump’s, had hinted multiple times that he was leaning against support for Tillerson before he ultimately cast a critical vote in his favor. Prior nominees of both parties had won approval with little controversy, including John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Condoleezza Rice.
Rubio was not on the fence with Pompeo; he supported him enthusiastically and used his time on Monday to explain his view on the role of the Senate in considering presidential Cabinet nominees. “The president is entitled to have people in the Cabinet who agree with him and share his worldview,” he said.
Pompeo’s supporters were also operating with the confidence—if not the explicit assurance—that Senate Democrats facing tough reelection campaigns in states Trump carried would ultimately support his nomination on the floor. Senior Democratic aides were pessimistic all along that they would be able to defeat Pompeo, a signal that Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was not pressuring senators like Heitkamp, Manchin, or Donnelly to stick with the party on the vote. Republicans have also mentioned Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Doug Jones of Alabama as possible votes for Pompeo.
Nor were Democrats confident that Paul, a golfing buddy of Trump’s, would actually follow through with his vow to oppose Pompeo. The nomination had split two key Republicans who have alternately been allies of the president and thorns in his side: Paul and Corker. But while Corker has been rhetorically more critical of Trump, Paul has taken tougher votes against him—none more so than his opposition to the GOP proposal to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Corker has complained more about the president’s style than his substance. And he has been a staunch supporter of Pompeo’s nomination, helping to ensure that it would not get bottled up in committee even without enough votes for approval.
Democrats were right to be skeptical of Paul’s opposition. Ultimately, Trump could not sway any Democrats on the committee to vote for Pompeo, but he did successfully lean on his occasional ally from Kentucky, and the president’s nominee for secretary of state will soon move to a final vote on the Senate floor having narrowly escaped a historic rebuke.