President-elect Donald Trump may be at war with the intelligence community, but on Thursday his pick to head the CIA tried to bridge the rift between the incoming president and his spies, saying he accepts the assessment that Russia meddled in the election to boost the Republican’s candidacy.
“It’s pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy,” Rep. Mike Pompeo (R.-Kan.) told the Senate Intelligence Committee. “This was an aggressive action taken by senior leadership inside of Russia.”
Following a script employed this week by other Trump cabinet nominees, including the prospective secretaries of state and defense and the next attorney general, Pompeo sought to reassure lawmakers that he did not share Trump’s often extreme views, and that he would faithfully carry out his duties in the Trump administration, even if that led to clashes with the new president.
Pompeo said he would continue investigating the Russian effort to meddle in the U.S. election and would share that information with the FBI, even if that investigation ensnares Trump or his associates. As CIA director, Pompeo said he would “pursue the facts wherever they take us.”
Following a campaign during which Trump at times embraced extreme positions, Pompeo sought to put daylight between him and his future boss. While Trump has suggested he would be willing as president to allow the use of torture, Pompeo said he would disobey such an order from Trump, citing laws prohibiting such interrogation techniques.
And while Trump wants to team up with Russia to fight Islamic State, Pompeo appeared skeptical that such an alliance would deliver many gains. Instead, Pompeo said Russia “has reasserted itself aggressively” by “invading and occupying Ukraine,” and furthermore is “doing nearly nothing to aid in the destruction of ISIS” with its air campaign in Syria.
Pompeo also tried to walk a middle ground on Iran. A harsh critic of the Iran nuclear deal while in Congress, Pompeo said that as CIA director he would focus on monitoring Tehran’s compliance with the agreement, adding that “the Iranians are professionals at cheating.” Trump has suggested tearing up the deal or trying to renegotiate it.
Pompeo’s confirmation hearing Thursday came after a wild week in which the publication of a private intelligence dossier full of unsubstantiated allegations about ties between Trump and Russia prompted a renewed war of words between the president-elect and the intelligence agencies he will soon oversee. During a Wednesday press conference, Trump said the dossier’s publication resembled the tactics of Nazi Germany, and blamed the intelligence community for what he described as a leak. The privately-compiled dossier apparently formed the basis for a memo briefing both Trump and President Obama last week.
In a statement late Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said he had spoken to Trump and expressed his “profound dismay” that the document had been published, which he underscored was not produced by the U.S. intelligence community. He added that the “The [intelligence community] has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions.”
But he didn’t dismiss it out of hand, either. “However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security,” the statement continued.
In a tweet Thursday morning, Trump erroneously claimed that Clapper had denounced “the false and fictitious” report.
In a bid to make up for Trump’s Nazi references and belittling of intelligence agencies, Pompeo on Thursday repeatedly praised CIA employees as patriotic “warriors” dedicated to preserving American security.
If Pompeo is approved by the Senate, the CIA will be led a partisan lawmaker who was a particularly aggressive investigator of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. Though a costly and lengthy investigation discovered no evidence of wrongdoing by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pompeo insisted that that a politically motivated cover-up had taken place.
Pompeo said in his new job, his role will change “from policymaker to information provider.” A three-term congressman elected as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave who graduated at the top of his class at the U.S. Military Academy, Pompeo pledged to bring “clear-eyed” analysis to the job, including examining Russian efforts to wage information war on the United States.
On Thursday, Pompeo said the debate about the legitimacy of the U.S. election has served Russian interests and that Russian President Vladimir Putin was behind the effort to break into the computer systems of American political organizations and leak stolen documents. “Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that the report has an analytical product that is sound,” Pompeo said.
For all his departures from the Trump line, Pompeo did follow the script in at least one place: when it comes to climate change. Under sharp questioning from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Pompeo, a climate change skeptic, repeatedly dodged questions about whether he would accept the assessment of the intelligence community, and shared by the Pentagon, that climate change could harm U.S. national security by exacerbating global instability, and by sparking food, water, and refugee crises.
That skeptical stance toward the threat posed by climate change echoed Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil CEO nominated to serve as secretary of state. During testimony Wednesday, Tillerson acknowledged the reality of climate change, but said it is “not the pre-eminent threat” that current Obama administration officials and military leaders believe.
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