Ballgame: Democrat Mark Warner endorses Gina Haspel for CIA chief

No way she doesn’t get confirmed now. In fact, I’d say this is the single most valuable endorsement she could have realistically received from Team Blue. (Caucus leaders like Schumer and 2020 prospects like Warren and Harris were never going to support her.) Warner’s from a swing state and he’s *not* up for reelection this year. It’s easy to see why someone like Joe Manchin would back Haspel, as he’s facing a deep-red electorate in less than five months. Warner doesn’t need to worry about that — yet he’s supporting her anyway.

More importantly, though, Warner’s the ranking member on the Senate Intel Committee. His verdict on Haspel is bound to carry extra weight with his party. Skittish red-state fencesitters like Claire McCaskill now have political cover from the caucus’s intelligence honcho to back Haspel. She’s a cinch to be confirmed.

To think, nine days ago WaPo was reporting that Haspel was quietly seeking to withdraw, fearing that she could never get approval.

“Gina Haspel has served our country with dedication for 33 years. In many ways, her story is representative of the thousands of people at the Agency and throughout the intelligence community who serve quietly, without recognition, and often at great personal risk, in order to keep our nation safe from those who wish to do us harm.

“Over the last year I’ve had the opportunity to work with Ms. Haspel in her role as Deputy Director, and I have always found her to be professional and forthright with the Intelligence Committee. Most importantly, I believe she is someone who can and will stand up to the President if ordered to do something illegal or immoral – like a return to torture.

“I acknowledge that this has been a difficult decision. There are valid questions that have been raised regarding the Acting Director’s record, and I have been frank with Ms. Haspel that I wish she had been more open with the American public during this process. However, in both our one-on-one meetings and in classified session before the Committee, I found Acting Director Haspel to be more forthcoming regarding her views on the interrogation program, which is why I asked her to memorialize those comments in writing. I also take to heart the strong support Ms. Haspel has among rank-and-file members of the intelligence community and from intelligence community leaders who served under President Obama.

What’d I say about Warner giving cover to fencesitters from red states? Literally as I’m writing this, news is breaking:

Warner’s not just giving cover, though, he’s getting it — from Haspel herself, who sent him a letter this morning in response to his concerns about her:

“While I won’t condemn those that made these hard calls, and I have noted the valuable intelligence collected, the program ultimately did damage to our officers and our standing in the world,” she wrote. “With the benefit of hindsight and my experience as a senior agency leader, the enhanced interrogation program is not one the C.I.A. should have undertaken. The United States must be an example to the rest of the world, and I support that.”

That’s reminiscent of what Mike Pompeo told Rand Paul at the eleventh hour before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted on his own nomination for Secretary of State. Paul swore up and down that he wouldn’t vote to confirm a hawk like Pompeo but Democrats hung together, leaving Paul as the decisive vote on the committee. If he had voted no, the committee would have formally opposed Pompeo, embarrassing the nominee and the White House *and* leaving him open to a Democratic filibuster before the Senate’s final vote on his nomination. So, under tremendous pressure from Trump, Paul flipped — on the condition that Pompeo first admit that the Iraq war as a mistake. Okay, said Pompeo (allegedly). You were right and I was wrong. Haspel’s doing the same thing for Warner here, knowing that he needed something to offer the left before they flay him for his vote.

Still, I’m surprised. I thought Pompeo would be confirmed fairly comfortably while Haspel, given her “black site” pedigree, would be a real uphill battle. The left wants to tank Trump’s nominees but they really wanted to tank Haspel. In the end he was the one who nearly got derailed in committee while Haspel looks like she’ll have relatively little trouble. If this vacancy were being filled last year or next year, it might not have gone this way since red-state Democrats like Heitkamp would have been more willing to say no. But this is a midterm year and Trump’s job approval is inching up. They were jammed.

As for Warner, who had more freedom to maneuver, I think he was probably swayed on the merits. Haspel comes highly recommended by the intel community, including by Obama’s own intelligence chieftains. He may have concluded that she really is the best person for the job. And importantly, she’s not a political appointee. The perpetual fear among anti-Trumpers when a key vacancy opens up is that he’s going to pluck some crony from out of nowhere and try to install them in the position. Do you want Gina Haspel as CIA chief or Judge Jeanine? I think that risk is low-ish with a job as important and specialized as this one but Trump’s own unpredictability may have weighed on Warner.

Plus, given Trump’s antagonism towards the “deep state” and his criticism of the intel bureaus earlier in his presidency, Warner may have thought that Haspel’s confirmation would be something of a morale-builder for the rank and file. They’re getting someone they respect; they’re being told, essentially, that their work on the EIT program won’t end their careers; and women personnel are being reassured that having the “right” gender is no longer a prerequisite to leading the agency.

Even so, the left’s going to give him a beating for a few days. He’ll take his lumps then they’ll grudgingly endorse him again in 2020, reasoning that Virginia is still purplish enough that they can’t afford to replace a respected incumbent like Warner on the ballot with an unknown left-wing newbie, especially in a presidential election year when distractions and intramural warfare must be kept to a minimum. He knows what he’s doing.