WASHINGTON – The US 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 US foreign policy challenges such as North Korea and Iran.
He left Washington immediately for top-level Nato talks in Brussels, but has a host of other problems in his “In” basket.
Pompeo, a former Army officer who was a Republican congressman, is regarded as a Trump loyalist with hawkish world views.
He is already deeply involved in diplomacy. Trump sent Pompeo to North Korea three weeks ago to meet with the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, ahead of a summit with the US president to address Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
Senators voted 57-42 in favour of Pompeo, who had faced stiff resistance from Democrats worried about his reputation for hawkishness and past harsh statements about homosexuality and Islam.
Pompeo will be forced quickly to 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 to decide whether to toughen an international nuclear agreement with Iran.
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.
But he 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.
Opponents also worried that Pompeo was too hawkish, and said his past remarks about homosexuals and Islam made him unsuitable to represent the United States on the world stage.
US senators said Pompeo was expected to hit the ground running and head off almost immediately to a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Friday.
Supporters said Pompeo did well during 15 months leading the CIA, and said the country badly needed a leader at the State Department, where staffing has been slashed with many positions unfilled since Trump became president in January 2017.
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.
Pompeo avoided being the first nominee for secretary of state ever rejected by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee only when Republican Senator Rand Paul, who had vowed to oppose him, announced his support minutes before the committee voted on Monday after pressure from the party.
None of the 10 Democrats on the 21-member committee supported the nominee.
Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the foreign relations panel, was a vocal opponent of Pompeo’s confirmation, but said he did not think the bruising confirmation fight would leave Pompeo wounded.
“He obviously has the president’s support. That will be meaningful to people in the world,” Menendez said on Wednesday, drawing a contrast with his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who often seemed to differ from the president.
Trump abruptly fired former oil executive Tillerson last month.