His Russia answer would have been more newsworthy today if not for the fact that Trump himself finally blamed Russia for the hackings at yesterday’s press conference. I wonder if Pompeo had a hand in that. If Team Trump asked him how he intended to testify at his confirmation hearing about the hackings and he told them he thought the evidence pointed to Russia, the only way to avoid a embarrassing split between him and Trump was for the two of them to get on the same page. Now we’ll never know what Pompeo would have said this morning if Trump had tripled down yesterday in refusing to point a finger at Russia. Would he have hedged more in the answer he gave Feinstein? Would he have backed Trump up by insisting that we can’t know for sure who’s behind a hacking, which would have pitted him against his own soon-to-be deputies at Langley? Or would he have given the same answer and triggered a million “POMPEO UNDERCUTS TRUMP” headlines? Note that he does make one concession to Trump’s position: In addressing why Russia did it, he says it was “to have an impact on American democracy” — not specifically to help Trump, which is what the CIA claims.
The phrasing here is interesting too:
Pompeo says he would continue investigations into Russia meddling as CIA director. "And I expect P-elect would demand that of me."
— Rebecca Berg (@rebeccagberg) January 12, 2017
We’ll see how those “expectations” shake out in practice, as Trump tries to restore good relations with Russia. The last thing he’ll want or need as he’s making nice with Moscow is Pompeo turning up some damning new intelligence about Putin and the hackings.
Waterboarding’s another topic on which Trump has retreated from his campaign stance. In 2015 he went so far as to say of enhanced interrogation of jihadis, “If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway.” Then, in November, he backed off, claiming that Mattis had convinced him a softer touch might be more useful in getting information out of detainees. (What does that have to do with torturing them because they deserve it, even if it doesn’t produce intelligence?) Pompeo was naturally asked about it today and said he won’t conduct enhanced interrogation even if Trump gives the order, which, he quickly added, he didn’t think Trump would do. Two years ago, though, he said this:
In response to the 2014 Senate report that found the CIA tortured suspected terrorists, Pompeo, as a congressman, released a statement saying the methods used were constitutional.
“These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots. The programs being used were within the law, within the Constitution, and conducted with the full knowledge of Sen. Feinstein,” he said. “If any individual did operate outside of the program’s legal framework, I would expect them to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
The difference between now and then is that Congress passed a law in 2015 specifically referring to the Army Field Manual, which doesn’t condone waterboarding, as the standard for interrogation by intelligence agencies. It was legal under Bush, Pompeo was arguing in 2014 — but now, in 2017, it clearly isn’t, and it can’t be made legal without Congress’s approval, not on Trump’s say-so. (That’s what he and Feinstein are getting it in the clip in their exchange about “regular order.”) That makes four Trump nominees in two days, incidentally, who have disclaimed any intention to bring back waterboarding. Jeff Sessions said yesterday that the practice is illegal; Rex Tillerson and John Kelly, Trump’s nominee at DHS, also rejected the idea at their own confirmation hearings. That’s newsy given Trump’s pro-torture stance during the campaign, but maybe his fondness for waterboarding was one of those “take him seriously but not literally” things. It’s not that he cared so much about the policy, it’s that he wanted to build a tough-guy image by going where other Republican candidates wouldn’t. It worked.
Pompeo was also asked about Wikileaks, by the way, specifically why he tweeted something during the campaign hyping the DNC emails they were leaking. “I have never believed that WikiLeaks was a credible source of information,” he told this morning’s Senate panel. That may be the first issue on which he and Trump really do sharply disagree.