WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate confirmed Mike Pompeo as President Donald Trump’s secretary of state on Thursday, putting the former CIA director in a pivotal role to handle U.S. foreign policy challenges such as North Korea and Iran.
Pompeo, a former Army officer who was a Republican congressman, is regarded as a Trump loyalist with hawkish world views.
Pompeo, who takes over the job vacated by Rex Tillerson, is already deeply involved in diplomacy. Trump sent him to North Korea three weeks ago to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, ahead of a summit with the U.S. president to address Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Senators in the Republican-controlled chamber voted 57-42 in favor of Pompeo, who had faced resistance from Democrats worried about his reputation for hawkishness and past harsh statements about homosexuality and Islam.
Six Democrats and one independent who normally votes with Democrats backed Pompeo. No Republican voted no.
Pompeo will be forced to quickly address a wide array of other international challenges, including long conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Chinese expansionism in Asia and Russian assertiveness.
Washington is also working with European allies such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the possibility of toughening an international nuclear agreement with Iran.
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Supporters of Pompeo said he did well during 15 months leading the CIA, and said the country badly needed a leader at the State Department. Staffing at the department was slashed and many positions left unfilled under Tillerson, a former oil executive who was Trump’s first secretary of state.
Trump, who abruptly fired Tillerson last month, welcomed Pompeo’s confirmation, saying in a statement, “Having a patriot of Mike’s immense talent, energy, and intellect leading the Department of State will be an incredible asset for our country at this critical time in history.”
Pompeo narrowly avoided a historic rebuke by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Pompeo, who became one of Trump’s closest advisers during his 15 months at the CIA, faced stiff opposition from Democrats, who worried he might be too closely aligned with the president.
While in Congress, Pompeo was an outspoken opponent of the Iran nuclear accord. He once suggested the answer to Tehran’s nuclear program - which Iran has always said was for peaceful means only - was 2,000 bombing sorties.
Senator Ben Cardin, a senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that attitude, and Pompeo’s backing for Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement if it cannot be changed, were reasons he opposed him.
“That’s not diplomacy, and that’s certainly not working with our European allies,” Cardin said.
Pompeo said during his confirmation hearing that he was open to fixing, rather than blowing apart, the pact, which the West believes is key to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
A State Department official said Pompeo was leaving Washington for a NATO meeting in Brussels on Friday as soon as he was sworn in. This took place soon after his confirmation vote.
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Pompeo avoided being the first nominee for secretary of state ever rejected by the Foreign Relations Committee only when Republican Senator Rand Paul, who had vowed to oppose him, shifted position minutes before the panel voted on Monday.
None of the 10 Democrats on the 21-member committee supported the nominee.
The vote for Pompeo was almost the same as for his predecessor Tillerson, who was approved by 56-43, then an unusually close margin for a secretary of state.
Trump picked the CIA’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to replace Pompeo as head of the spy agency. If confirmed by the Senate, she would become the first woman to hold the post. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle Editing by Alistair Bell and Frances Kerry)