CIA Director Mike Pompeo on Thursday repeatedly challenged claims he is a hawk who would lead the country into another costly war, arguing during his first confirmation hearing to become secretary of State that he would dedicate himself to promoting diplomatic solutions as a way to prevent war.
Casting himself as a man of the people dedicated to improving morale at the State Department and filling numerous key agency vacancies, Pompeo said his military service makes him keenly appreciative of the country's diplomatic work to prevent unnecessary wars.
"There's no one like someone who understands the value of diplomacy and the terror and tragedy that is war like someone who has served in uniform," said Pompeo, who served in the Persian Gulf War and graduated first in his class at West Point. "It's the last resort. It must always be so."
Pompeo was responding to a line of questioning by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D., Ore.), who asked whether Trump was trying to establish a "war cabinet" by recently choosing him to head the State Department and John Bolton as his national security adviser.
When it comes to the Iranian nuclear agreement, Pompeo did not take the hardline that may had expected after his repeated denunciations of the way the Obama administration negotiated the deal during his time as a House member.
Pompeo said he would like to see the nuclear pact tightened against Tehran but also said he could see President Trump sticking with it if the U.S. and its European allies come "close" to an agreement to strengthen in by the May 12 deadline.
Critics of the deal have focused on three of the pact's big weaknesses—that several provisions sunset in 2025, that inspectors don't have immediate access to some military sites inside Iran, and that it does not address Tehran's support for terrorists and non-nuclear-related violations of its international agreements such as its ballistic missile program.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), who came out in opposition to the Iran nuclear deal after the Obama administration sent it to Congress for a vote, tried to extract precise answers on whether Pompeo wanted to scuttle the deal or salvage it.
Cardin, a top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, asked Pompeo whether he believes the U.S. should "unilaterally" withdraw from the accord if the president determines that it cannot be modified in a viable way.
Pompeo said he couldn't respond to a hypothetical with nearly a month left before the May 12 deadline but stressed that he wants to "fix this deal" and left open the possibility that he deal could modified, not scuttled completely as Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail.
"It depends, clearly, if we're close," Pompeo said. "In the event that we conclude that we can't fix this deal, that these serious shortcomings that you, Senator Cardin yourself, have identified, then the president is going to be given best advice."
"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," he said.
During more than five hours of questioning, Pompeo, 54, remained congenial, even as he pushed back on a number of Democrats questions about preemptive actions in North Korea, Iran, and dismissed a Democratic question on whether he believed the country should go to war with Cuba.
"I haven't at any time stated that we should go to war with Cuba," he replied.
As it relates to upcoming talks between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pompeo repeatedly said the goal was not "regime change," but if possible, to find a "verifiable" way to "achieve a condition where Kim Jung Un is unable to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon."
Despite several Democratic attempts, Pompeo also repeatedly declined to weigh in on Trump's repeated denunciations of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.
When asked specifically whether he believes Trump has the authority to fire Mueller, he said he is "in no position to make a comment on that question."
Pompeo defended the Trump administration's record on confronting Russian destabilizing activity against the United States, even as he readily acknowledged that there is "more work to do."
Pompeo agreed that Russia meddled in the election and said the United States needs to "push back in each place we confront them." He stressed that the Trump administration has administered sanctions and recently kicked out a record number of Russian officials from the United States in protest to an attack on a former Russian spy on British soil.
He also for the first time confirmed that a U.S. airstrike killed more than 200 Russian mercenaries fighting on Assad's side in Syria back in February.
In one point of divergence from Trump, he said he disagreed with a Thursday morning tweet from the president that blamed the Mueller investigation for bad relations with Moscow.
In a particularly heated exchange with Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.), Pompeo dismissed the suggestion that he would have any bias against Muslim officials at the State Department.
"My record is exquisite with respect to treating each and every faith with the dignity that they deserved," he said, noting that he had worked closely with Muslim leaders and Muslim countries while CIA director and would continue that work at State.
"The CIA has saved countless Muslim lives during my tenure at the CIA," he said.
Booker also tried to pin Pompeo down on whether he believes that being gay is "a perversion."
"When I was a politician, I had a very clear view on whether it was appropriate for two same-sex persons to marry," Pompeo answered. "I stand by that."
Booker repeated the question, and Pompeo tried to avoid answering it directly, stressing instead that he would respect every individual working at the State Department in the same way regardless of their sexual orientation.