WASHINGTON – Mike Pompeo, the man tapped by President Donald Trump to be the next secretary of state, has engaged in tough talk about Russia, long before the 2016 presidential election.
As a Kansas congressman, Pompeo said that the United States and its allies should exploit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s weaknesses and enact sanctions “to keep him in his box.”
As CIA director, Pompeo said there’s “a long history of Russian efforts to influence the United States and conduct influence operations against the United States.”
Now, as he looks to serve as the nation’s top diplomat following the abrupt ouster of Rex Tillerson Tuesday, Pompeo will face his biggest test: Can he stand up to Trump on Russia?
“He’s made some good statements on Russia and acknowledging the obvious that they were involved and I’m anxious to see if he sticks to those views,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona.
Trump has been criticized by Democrats and Republicans alike for speaking out about his admiration for Putin and repeatedly rejecting the intelligence community’s analysis of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. And he has blasted special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into allegations that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin during the election.
Mike McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said Pompeo might be able to use his close relationship with Trump to get the president on board with his administration’s own policy.
“What we have seen on record suggests he sees the nature of the threat,” he said. “But whether he has the power to convince Trump of that, I just don’t know.”
Some Democrats praised Pompeo’s long-standing views on Russia on Tuesday but worried that he won’t stand firm as he becomes one of Trump’s top aides.
“Tillerson’s successor must approach the grave threat of Russian foreign aggression with the seriousness and urgency that it demands,” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said. “Director Pompeo has stated, he has ‘every expectation’ Russia will attack our democracy again. America must be ready.”
Tillerson’s firing came just hours after he proclaimed that Russia was behind the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter with a military-grade nerve agent in the U.K. and warned that the action would “certainly trigger a response.” He told reporters on his way home from a trip to Africa that it was not known whether the poisoning came from Russia with the Russian government’s knowledge but “it came from Russia.”
Trump reluctantly signed a bill that would allow new sanctions against entities doing significant business with Moscow’s defense and intelligence sectors after Congress voted nearly unanimously to pass it
6 months into his term. The State Department has yet to use the law that took effect in January.
“Why not?” asked Sen. Ben Cardin, top Democrat on Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, which will hold confirmation hearings on Pompeo. “What will the secretary of state, if he’s confirmed, do to make sure that Congress, which is the policy arm of government, that our policies are carried out?”
Mike Carpenter, a former senior Russia specialist at the Pentagon during the Obama administration, said that while Pompeo has been critical of Russia’s aggressive behavior, “his loyalty lies first and foremost with Trump.”
Pompeo, for example, falsely claimed the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies signed a report concluding that no votes had been swayed by Russia’s influence operation in the 2016 election when the report never made that determination, Carpenter said. “This clearly demonstrates that he’s a partisan, loose with the facts, and eager to please his political master,” he said.
But Steve Hall, who headed the agency’s Russia operations from 2013 to 2015, said Pompeo’s posture toward the Kremlin as CIA director “has been firmer than I would have expected.”
“The real trick is going to be the political side of it and how you deal with this president and this administration, versus how you deal with Russia,” Hall said. “How do you walk that line between not pissing off the commander in chief who can fire you on a whim by saying things that you know are really going to upset the president, but at the same time speak truth to power and say this is what we know from intelligence sources, this is what we know from official diplomatic sources? How do you do that and keep your job? I don’t know. Good luck.”
In a 2014 interview, produced by Wichita Liberty TV, a conservative-leaning weekly public affairs program, Pompeo, a West Point graduate who served in the Army during the Cold War, was clear that Putin was no friend of the United States.
“I think we have a lot to worry about with Vladimir Putin,” he said. Putin is trying to re-create a “greater Russia,” but with special forces and political propaganda instead of tanks, he said.
He expressed support for U.S. and European Union economic sanctions against Russia, which annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
“The West has an obligation to do the things we can,” he said. “We should exploit those weaknesses to keep him in his box.”
Pompeo, a three-term Kansas Republican who served on the House Intelligence Committee, was a critic of former President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies toward two Russian allies, Syria and Iran.
“Mike is how he is and he has his own skepticism for Russia, and rightfully so,” said Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican and member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. “It’s well-earned.”
On Sunday, Pompeo unequivocally acknowledged Russia’s role in the 2016 election. “The Russians attempted to interfere in the United States election in 2016,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.” “They also did so before that. There’s a long history of Russian efforts to influence the United States and conduct influence operations against the United States. And it was Russians who actually engaged in this, not somebody from outside of the country or disconnected from Russia.”
(Emma Dumain, William Douglas, Greg Gordon, Tom Hart and Peter Stone in Washington and Hunter Woodall in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this story.)
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