CAPITOL HILL - U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, faced intense questioning about the ongoing Russia probe, his relationship with the president, and hotspots around the globe during his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Pompeo indicated he would not resign in protest if Trump fired Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading an investigation of ties between Russia and Trump’s inner circle.
“My instincts tell me that my obligation to continue to serve as America’s senior diplomat will be more important at increased times of political domestic turmoil,” the nominee said.
WATCH: Pompeo Faces Tough Grilling by Senate
Pompeo refused to say whether he shares Trump’s view that the special counsel is on a “witch hunt” and repeatedly declined to discuss what he has heard the president say about the Russia probe.
“I’m not going to talk about the conversations the president and I had,” Pompeo said. “I’m with the president an awful lot, and he has never asked me to do anything that I considered remotely improper.”
The nominee did, however, distance himself from a Trump tweet blaming the Russia investigation for “bad blood” between Moscow and Washington.
“The historic conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union and now Russia is caused by Russian bad behavior,” Pompeo said.
Senators of both parties stressed the need for a secretary of state who can navigate an often-stormy White House and stand up to the president, when needed.
“You have developed a close relationship with the president…many strong voices have been terminated or resigned [under Trump],” Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said.
“The American people are deeply worried by an erratic president who uses schoolboy taunts when talking about nuclear war,” the ranking Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, said. “Will you be a voice of reason [in the Trump administration], or will you support the president’s worst instincts?”
In his response, Pompeo pointed to his background as a former U.S. military officer.
“I know some of you have read the stories – I’m [described as] a hawk, a hardliner,” the nominee said. “There’s no one like someone who has served in uniform who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war…The best outcomes are always won at the diplomatic table.”
Pompeo rejected regime change in North Korea and said he hoped diplomacy -- including an expected summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un -- would achieve Pyongyang’s complete and verifiable denuclearization.
“We have a responsibility to achieve a condition where Kim Jong Un is unable to threaten the United States of America with a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Pompeo conceded that as CIA director he has seen “no evidence” that Iran has failed to comply with the international nuclear deal negotiated during the former Obama administration. Even so, the nominee repeatedly spoke of “shortcomings” in the accord that must be addressed.
“I want to fix this deal. That’s the objective. I think that’s in the best interests of the United States,” Pompeo said. “If there’s no chance we can fix it, I will recommend to the president that we do our level best to work with our allies to achieve a better outcome and a better deal.”
On other matters, Pompeo echoed Trump’s criticism of the 2015 Paris climate accord, saying it “put an undue burden on the United States.”
Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey pressed the nominee on past anti-gay statements. Pompeo said he continues to oppose same-sex marriage but that his personal views do not affect how he treats people.
“We have married gay couples at the CIA. I treated them with the exact same respect,” Pompeo said.
“You’re going to represent this country and its values abroad in countries where gay individuals are under untold persecution, untold violence. You’re views do matter,” Booker responded.
Trump nominated Pompeo, a former Republican member of Congress, to be secretary of state after abruptly dismissing Rex Tillerson from the post last month.
With one exception, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Republican senators are expected to back Pompeo’s nomination. Most Democrats are withholding judgment, but some have expressed concerns about Pompeo’s hawkish stances and questioned whether he is a good choice to serve as America’s top diplomat.