Mike Pompeo said he came to his confirmation hearing Thursday prepared to talk about the Trump administration’s policies and his qualifications to lead the State Department.
Democrats wanted to talk about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential election.
Mr. Pompeo, currently the director of the CIA, laid out his views on critical foreign policy questions, including saying that President Trump has the power to strike at Syria without new authority from Congress, that work with the international community on Iran nuclear sanctions would continue even if the administration decertifies the Obama-era deal, and that pressure on Russia goes beyond the economic sanctions for which Democrats are clamoring.
In one striking moment, Mr. Pompeo confirmed that American forces had killed a “couple hundred” Russian mercenaries in a clash in Syria in February. “The Russians met their match,” he said.
But he acknowledged more sanctions are likely necessary.
“I readily concede that Vladimir Putin has not yet received the message sufficiently, and we need to continue to work at that,” he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is in charge of his confirmation process.
He also said he is reading up on past interactions with North Korea so he can see what mistakes to avoid as Mr. Trump prepares to meet dictator Kim Jong-un in a couple of months. He stressed that he is not calling for Mr. Kim’s ouster but is determined to see the rogue nation’s nuclear program eliminated.
Republicans and Democrats asked for assurances that Mr. Pompeo, a former Army cavalry captain, a Harvard Law School graduate and a three-term congressman, promise to be an independent — and, if need be, contrarian — voice within the administration.
Democrats cajoled Mr. Pompeo to confirm that Russia meddled in the election and that Moscow is responsible for frayed relations — contradicting Mr. Trump, who tweeted this week that the ongoing Mueller investigation is causing much of what he termed “bad blood.”
The Mueller investigation was a passion for most of the Democrats on the panel, who repeatedly brought their questioning back to the subject.
One senator told Mr. Pompeo that he should think about resigning from office in defiance if Mr. Trump fires the special counsel or the deputy attorney general who is overseeing the investigation.
He said he probably wouldn’t and pointed to the example of President Clinton, whose team stuck by him even after he was impeached.
Another Democrat wanted to know whether Mr. Trump had recruited Mr. Pompeo to thwart investigations into Russian activities.
The CIA director said he has been cooperating to an unprecedented extent by sharing information with Mr. Mueller and two congressional intelligence committees that are conducting their own investigations into Russian activities.
“I have been a participant in special counsel Mueller’s activity,” he confirmed.
But he flatly rejected a Washington Post report that said Mr. Trump held Mr. Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats behind after a meeting last year and asked them to take steps to influence the investigation.
Mr. Pompeo said he didn’t recall exactly what Mr. Trump asked, but he denied the substance of the report.
“The article’s suggestion that he asked me to do anything that was improper was false,” he said.
When Democrats did venture into foreign affairs, they — and some Republicans — asked Mr. Pompeo to convince them he is not eager for war, particularly after Mr. Trump brought on National Security Adviser John R. Bolton.
“Are we assembling a war Cabinet of John Bolton and Mike Pompeo?” demanded Sen. Jeff Merkley, Oregon Democrat. “People want to know whether or not your views are close enough to Bolton’s … that we are going to have a very dangerous arrangement on the key two advisers to the president of the United States.”
Perhaps feeding those fears, Mr. Bolton issued a statement late Thursday saying he was eager to have Mr. Pompeo on the team.
“We need him as secretary of state as we support the president and take on some of the toughest foreign policy issues of our time,” Mr. Bolton said.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, pressed Mr. Pompeo on whether Mr. Trump has the power to strike at Syria, as the White House has claimed. Mr. Pompeo had said President Obama did not have that authority when the last administration conducted extended airstrikes in Libya.
Mr. Pompeo said he believes Congress should update the 2001 and 2002 grants of authority to the president to use military force against the terrorist threat — going beyond what many others in the administration have said.
But he said in the meantime, Mr. Trump does have authority to conduct surgical strikes in Syria.
“I believe he has the authority he needs to do that today,” Mr. Pompeo said.
As a congressman, Mr. Pompeo built a lengthy conservative record. Lawmakers tried to pin him down on much of that.
Some liberal groups cheered what they saw as a softening after he said human activity is likely contributing to climate change. Others said he did nothing to convince them he is able to be the U.S. voice on gay rights or Muslim issues.
“If confirmed, Mike Pompeo would be the most vocally bigoted secretary of state in at least a generation,” said Farhana Khera, executive director of the group Muslim Advocates.
Congress’ two Muslim lawmakers — both in the House — said they opposed his nomination.
Given a chance to defend himself at the hearing, Mr. Pompeo said he faced the same questions 15 months ago when he was nominated to lead the CIA.
“I have honored and valued every single CIA officer regardless of race, color, you pick it gender, sexual orientation, I’ve treated every one of our offices with dignity and respect, I’ve promoted them when they deserve it. I’ve held them accountable when they deserve that as well,” he said. “I promise you that I’ll do as the secretary of state.”
A committee vote on Mr. Pompeo will come later this month, after senators submit more written questions and get answers. A vote in the full Senate would follow soon afterward.
Some Democrats said they have heard enough to know they will vote against confirming him.
“Instead of embracing diplomacy, he has a ‘Shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude on the use of force, and I’m concerned he will reinforce, not check, President Trump’s worst instincts,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat.
Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he wasn’t sure what to do with Mr. Pompeo.
“The Pompeo I heard today [is] much more different than some of the Pompeo of the past. I’m trying to figure out which one is going to act if he’s confirmed as secretary of state,” Mr. Menendez said. “Some of the things of the past I could never support. Some of the things you said here today I could be supportive of.”
Corrected from earlier: An earlier version erroneously described Mr. Pompeo as a former Army Ranger. He served in the cavalry.