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Congressional Leaders Voice Mixed Reviews of Trump's National Security Shakeup


Secretary of State Rex Tillerson waves goodbye after speaking at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, March 13, 2018. President Trump fired Tillerson on Tuesday.

President Donald Trump’s abrupt shakeup of his national security team Tuesday drew a decidedly mixed reaction from top congressional leaders, as some assailed chaotic foreign policy decision-making at the White House.

Several lawmakers praised former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, fired by Trump in a Twitter comment. Some key Republicans voiced support for his replacement, current CIA director Mike Pompeo, and CIA deputy director Gina Haspel as the new chief of the intelligence agency. They predicted the Senate would confirm Trump’s two nominees.

But opposition Democrats expressed reservations or outright opposition to Trump’s selection of Pompeo and Haspel ahead of what are likely to be contentious Senate hearings for both.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo speaks during the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) National Security Summit in Washington, Oct. 19, 2017.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo speaks during the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) National Security Summit in Washington, Oct. 19, 2017.

Speaker Paul Ryan, the leader of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, lauded Tillerson for his “steady leadership.” Ryan described Pompeo, a former congressman from the midwestern state of Kansas, as “razor-sharp, a dedicated patriot,” experience that Ryan said makes Pompeo “an outstanding choice to be our next top diplomat.” He congratulated Haspel on her “historic nomination” as the first woman to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., talks to reporters as he returns to his office from a vote, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 25, 2017.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., talks to reporters as he returns to his office from a vote, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 25, 2017.

Corker to hold hearings to appoint Pompeo

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Tillerson’s firing caught him by surprise and said he had “a lot of faith in Tillerson’s judgment,” although Trump said he and the diplomat he dismissed often disagreed on foreign policy issues, including the terms of the 2015 international Iran nuclear pact agreed to by former President Barack Obama.

Corker pledged to hold hearings soon on the appointment of Pompeo, who last year was confirmed as the CIA chief on a 66-to-32 Senate vote. Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas said he was confident Pompeo would be confirmed again by the Senate, where Republicans hold a narrow 51-49 majority.

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“He went over to the CIA, and he’s done an outstanding job over there as far as I’m concerned, so I’m confident,” Cornyn said.

Ambassador Nikki Haley, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, called Pompeo’s appointment a “great decision by the president.”

Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he looked forward to supporting Haspel’s nomination as CIA director, saying she has “the right skill set, experience and judgment to lead one of our nation’s most critical agencies.”

But Republican Senator John McCain, a senior lawmaker who has been absent from Washington while being treated in Arizona for brain cancer, said that Haspel “needs to explain the nature and extent of her involvement in the CIA’s interrogation program” of suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba detention center and at other secret locations elsewhere in the world.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, arrives for votes at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 19, 2017.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, arrives for votes at the Capitol in Washington, Oct. 19, 2017.

‘Disturbing facts’ from Haspel’s past

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon immediately announced his opposition to the appointments of both Pompeo and Haspel.

Wyden said Pompeo “has demonstrated a casual relationship to truth and principle. He has downplayed Russia’s attack on our democracy, at times contradicting the Intelligence Community he is supposed to lead. He has also made inconsistent and deeply concerning statements about torture and mass spying on Americans.”

This undated photo released by the CIA, shows CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985.
This undated photo released by the CIA, shows CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel, who joined the CIA in 1985.

Wyden said that if Haspel “seeks to serve at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, the government can no longer cover up disturbing facts from her past.”

Another Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, said it was “no secret” that she has had concerns about Haspel’s connection to the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” by the CIA against terrorist suspects after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. But Feinstein said that “to the best of my knowledge” Haspel has been “a good deputy director” during Pompeo’s year-long tenure at the spy agency.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said with the firing of Tillerson, “instability of this administration in just about every area weakens America.”

Schumer said that if Pompeo is confirmed, “we hope that Mr. Pompeo will turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia and (President Vladimir) Putin.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that Tillerson’s firing “sets a profoundly disturbing precedent in which standing up for our allies against Russian aggression is grounds for humiliating dismissal. President Trump’s actions show that every official in his administration is at the mercy of his personal whims and his worship of Putin.”

FILE - Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asks a question during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 6, 2017.
FILE - Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asks a question during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 6, 2017.

Democratic Senators Clair McCaskill of Missouri and Robert Menendez of New Jersey both condemned chaotic foreign policy decision-making at the White House.

“I just think it’s unfortunate that we’ve had so much chaos around foreign policy,” McCaskill said. “A lack of consistency, a lack of speaking with one voice. Unpredictability maybe an advantage of a real estate deal. But it is not necessarily an advantage when we’re trying to build relationships around the world.”

Menendez called Trump “commander in chaos,” adding, “Whenever you have a secretary of state who says one thing on the world stage, and then you have a president that totally undermines him and undercuts him, pulls the rug underneath him, that creates instability in the world.”

Michael Bowman and Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

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