WASHINGTON — U.S. President Donald Trump announced Tuesday that he had ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and will replace him with Mike Pompeo, now the CIA director, but Senate Democrats are signaling a confirmation fight.
The Senate Foreign Foreign Relations Committee’s ranking member, Bob Menendez, ripped Trump as “a commander in chaos,” and said the move endangers global stability. He and Democrats elsewhere on Capitol Hill hammered the White House over State Department budget cuts and key diplomatic vacancies.
“The reality is that a time when diplomacy is so important to the national security of the United States, we have a president who undermines it in his budget, undermines it in his structure, doesn’t appoint a series of ambassadors,” said Menendez, D-N.J. “Then he conducts high-wire diplomacy with North Korea without a safety net.”
The latest upheaval at the White House means another fight for a Congress that needs to pass appropriations and is already grappling with partisan fights on immigration and gun control.
Sen. John Cornyn, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican, told reporters he was concerned with having two confirmation hearings, one for Pompeo and one for his replacement heading the CIA, considering Congress’ legislative schedule for the year.
“With everything else we have to do around here, having the prospect of two additional confirmation fights perhaps is going to be a challenge,” CNN quoted Cornyn, R-Texas, as saying.
Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that Pompeo’s confirmation hearing will be in April.
A former congressman from Kansas, Pompeo served in the Army as a cavalry officer before training as a lawyer. He then entered politics in 2011. He could face Democratic opposition for support for keeping open the Guantanamo Bay detention center.
The Senate confirmed Pompeo to lead the CIA, 66-32.
The move also aggravates uncertainty on the world stage caused by the public differences between Tillerson and the president, and weakens U.S. national security, Democrats assert.
“By dismissing our nation’s top diplomat, President Trump is sending a signal of weakness to the world as we face continued threats from Russia, an upcoming meeting with North Korea, an ongoing crisis in Syria, and the urgent need to fill key diplomatic posts,” Virginia Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, said in a statement.
At odds with Corker, who told the CIA director Tuesday morning he wanted to advance his confirmation as quickly as possible, Menendez told reporters that same day he wants an in-depth confirmation process.
“Some of the positions he’s taken would be challenging in the world, to try to explain,“ Menendez said of Pompeo. “He’s going to have to explain it before the committee, and he’s going to have to explain what the role of diplomacy is.”
Corker told reporters the president called him about an hour after Trump tweeted about it, and he also spoke with Pompeo. Though Corker had never interacted with Pompeo before, he touted Pompeo’s education at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Corker was one of Tillersons key defenders in Washington. In early October, Corker had said that Tillerson, along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and White House chief of staff John Kelly, are “those people that help separate our country from chaos.”
Over his 14-month tenure, Tillerson repeatedly had found himself at odds with the president on a variety of key foreign policy issues, including an approach to North Korea, the Qatar crisis, the Iran nuclear deal and alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Corker offered what could be read as a warning for Pompeo and an autopsy for Tillerson, calling secretary of state “the one position where you’re constantly in the president’s lane.”
“The president’s very entrepreneurial in his activities, and Secretary Tillerson comes from a place where process was a big deal, they lead everything out in advance,” Corker said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Pompeo a great choice because of his closeness with the president.
“He’ll more effectively communicate the president’s positions and probably have more sway over the president, simply because during his time as CIA director, they have bonded,” Graham said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.