Who could blame her? With Mike Pompeo unexpectedly escaping Senate Democrats’ efforts to defeat a Donald Trump nominee, Gina Haspel becomes their next big target, and she knows it. According to the Washington Post, Haspel had to be talked into sticking around for her confirmation hearing on Wednesday after attending a White House briefing on Friday:
Gina Haspel, President Trump’s nominee to become the next CIA director, sought to withdraw her nomination Friday after some White House officials worried that her role in the interrogation of terrorist suspects could prevent her confirmation by the Senate, according to four senior U.S. officials.
Haspel told the White House she was interested in stepping aside if it avoided the spectacle of a brutal confirmation hearing on Wednesday and potential damage to the CIA’s reputation and her own, the officials said. She was summoned to the White House on Friday for a meeting on her history in the CIA’s controversial interrogation program — which employed techniques such as waterboarding that are widely seen as torture — and signaled that she was going to withdraw her nomination. She then returned to CIA headquarters, the officials said.
Taken aback at her stance, senior White House aides, including legislative affairs head Marc Short and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, rushed to Langley, Va., to meet with Haspel at her office late Friday afternoon. Discussions stretched several hours, officials said, and the White House was not entirely sure she would stick with her nomination until Saturday afternoon, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The meeting to get everyone on the same page for the confirmation hearing took place on Friday, May 4th. The lengthy meeting that ensued that evening may be why Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted out her support for Haspel the next day:
There is no one more qualified to be the first woman to lead the CIA than 30+ year CIA veteran Gina Haspel. Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite
— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) May 5, 2018
The Post notes that Donald Trump had been content to let Haspel speak for herself prior to getting surprised by the withdrawal offer. This morning, Trump pushed a little more forcefully on Haspel’s behalf:
My highly respected nominee for CIA Director, Gina Haspel, has come under fire because she was too tough on Terrorists. Think of that, in these very dangerous times, we have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want OUT because she is too tough on terror. Win Gina!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 7, 2018
Who else got the message? Fox & Friends came to her defense this morning, too:
“It’s all going to be about what happened regarding the waterboarding,” co-host Steve Doocy said of Haspel’s upcoming confirmation hearing on Wednesday. “Just keep in mind, whatever she did when she was in power at that point, she was doing it as a directive and it was all within the law.”
Kilmeade then launched into a defense of Haspel’s record, saying she should “just explain what she was doing” when she testifies.
“And I believe she should double down and say, ‘I’m proud of what I accomplished, whether it was black sites, enhanced interrogation, and I dare anyone to sit in my shoes and accomplish as much as I’ve done,’” Kilmeade said.
“And she could even, if she wanted to, if they could unclassify everything, tell us everything that you were able to pick up, because in Jose Rodriguez’s book, it’s in Jim Mitchell’s book,” he continued. “All the attacks they were able to stop because of some of the messes they put together. All green-lighted during her 32 year career.”
It certainly looks like all hands on deck for Haspel, at least now. The call to the White House on Friday appears to have surprised Haspel, according to the Post’s unfolding of events, as she had already been in preparations for the hearing. When asked to explain some material recently given to Congress regarding her connection to enhanced interrogation techniques, she may have assumed that the administration had gotten cold feet. Over the last 72 hours, the public display of support seems calculated to keep Haspel in the fold.
That may not do much for her prospects in the Senate, however. Pompeo had the advantage of being well-known and generally well-liked on Capitol Hill, and having red-state Senate Democrats who needed to demonstrate that they don’t have a knee-jerk animus against Trump. Having made that demonstration with Pompeo, they don’t have as much need to bend for Haspel. Rand Paul rejected Haspel in a Politico op-ed two months ago, and while he changed his mind with Pompeo under pressure from Trump, Paul’s rejection seems much more firm on Haspel:
There is no question that during her career, Haspel participated in and helped develop the program that our own government has labeled torture. Though there have been the typical suggestions that she was “simply following orders,” Glenn Carle, a former CIA interrogator, has described her as “one of the architects, designers, implementers and one of the top two managers of the [Enhanced Interrogation Techniques program] and a true believer, by all accounts, in the ‘Global War in Terror’ paradigm.”
This does not sound like someone who was simply “following orders.” This sounds like someone who was giving them, which I would argue is far worse.
Nor is it debatable that she was present in Thailand when Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was waterboarded three times in late 2002.
With Paul a no and John McCain out (and likely not terribly fond of Haspel’s nomination for the same reasons), that only leaves 49 Republicans. One of those is Susan Collins, who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, and who still has not stated publicly whether she will support Haspel’s nomination. A no from Collins could mean that the committee will negatively report Haspel’s nomination to the floor, which would certainly make Mitch McConnell’s job a lot tougher.
Assuming that Haspel only gets to 48 or 49, which Democrats step up to save Trump’s bacon this time? Maybe Doug Jones, who is all but doomed in Alabama when he runs for a full term anyway, but he still needs support from Democratic activist groups. CNN reported this morning that they’re hoping to get SIC ranking member Mark Warner to support Haspel, but that seems unlikely; Warner voted against Pompeo’s confirmation last month. Joe Manchin might flip if Don Blankenship doesn’t win the GOP nomination, but even that seems like a long shot.
Put simply, Haspel will have to knock it out of the park on Wednesday rather than get beaned by Democrats. She might wind up regretting not offering her withdrawal by Thursday.
What happens if Haspel’s nomination fails? CNN notes that Plan B involves another insider:
One of the contingency plans being discussed involves preparing Susan Gordon, the deputy director of national intelligence, to potentially take Haspel’s place in case Republican senators or Trump balk, two intelligence sources familiar with the matter said. Two additional sources who spoke with Republican strategists and lawmakers were also aware of general contingency planning. It’s unclear how formal these conversations are, but two of the sources said Gordon was in varying stages of being prepared.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Don’t be surprised to hear more about Gordon over the next few days.
Update: Maybe Manchin’s more worried than I suspected:
CIA Director Nominee Gina Haspel & WV Senator Joe Manchin walkout together after their meeting this afternoon:
Manchin: “we had a great conversation” & looking forward to Wednesday.
“Excellent meeting Senator” & “looking forward to Wednesday.” pic.twitter.com/RK2Q3RKpmp
— Jason Donner (@jason_donner) May 7, 2018