Senate Democrats are coming under pressure from the left to tank President Donald Trump’s latest Cabinet nominees, setting up a major test of unity for the party.
Trump’s choice of CIA Deputy Director Gina Haspel to lead the spy agency and CIA chief Mike Pompeo to be the next secretary of state is fueling a fierce opposition campaign among liberal and civil rights groups. Activists sense an opening to derail Haspel’s bid and at least complicate Pompeo’s confirmation, given that the White House will need some Democratic support to pull the nominees across the finish line.
It’s not just Haspel’s previous role in the use of interrogation tactics tantamount to torture against CIA detainees. Pompeo has taken a highly hawkish stance on Iran and amassed a controversial record on Islam, fodder for the left’s campaign to persuade 15 Senate Democratic Caucus members who voted for him to be CIA director to oppose him as State Department chief.
With Senate Democrats still trying to heal a schism between moderates and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) over a banking deregulation bill, the Pompeo and Haspel confirmation fights offer the chance for a moment of reconciliation between the wings of the Caucus — or a further fracturing that finds vulnerable red-state incumbents on the GOP’s side.
It’s even unclear where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a blue-state veteran who’s spent years fighting the legacy of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program, will end up. She faced an early jab from her liberal challenger to take a tougher line against Haspel and is now moving in that direction. Still, Feinstein and many in her party are not saying where they stand before confirmation hearings begin.
“Democrats are losing this opportunity to define a moral backbone for the party, to distinguish themselves on values,” said Faiz Shakir, national political director at the American Civil Liberties Union and a former Senate Democratic aide.
“Certainly, Trump loves torture — he’s said it, it ‘works.’ This is a clear opportunity to say, ‘That’s him and this is us.’ A complete break.”
One Democrat who supported Pompeo to lead CIA is already leaving the door open to opposing him as secretary of state. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a Foreign Relations Committee member, told POLITICO he has “some major concerns” about the bid.
“The intel position is so different than being the chief diplomat,” Kaine said in an interview last week. “And his track record as a House member was not pro-diplomacy, his track record was anti-diplomacy — and, I think, preferring war first. … That could exacerbate some major concerns I have about the president’s attitude.”
Another Senate Democrat on the Foreign Relations panel who backed Pompeo’s CIA nomination, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, also said in an interview that she wants to gauge his answers to budget and personnel questions before deciding how she’ll vote.
With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) absent and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposed to Haspel and Pompeo, the Trump White House is likely to need Democratic votes to win confirmation. That means a handful of senators are in line for a maximum pressure campaign from the left.
The Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, was among 15 members of the minority to support Pompeo’s CIA nomination last year. He’s declining to tip his hand on Haspel, however, telling reporters late last week that “there’s going to be a lot of legitimate questions that need to be answered, and I hope that she will be as forthcoming as possible while protecting sources and methods.”
Liberal and civil rights groups would like to see Warner join Feinstein and other Democrats in asking for the declassification of CIA records on Haspel’s role in the George W. Bush administration’s use of brutal interrogation tactics, including waterboarding.
Warner said that “within the bounds of protecting sources and methods, yes, I want to see as much declassified as possible” about Haspel’s past activity. But that may not be enough for advocates who warn that the agency is unlikely to act without a more direct edict from the Senate.
“I don’t think CIA will agree to it if the committee doesn’t force the issue, and I don’t think the committee will force the issue unless Warner is willing to tell [Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard] Burr that it needs to happen,” Katherine Hawkins, an investigator for the Project on Government Oversight, said in an interview.
POGO joined more than two dozen liberal and civil liberties groups in a Friday pleafor the Senate to declassify Haspel material. Amnesty International went further on Monday, urging Trump to withdraw her nomination and launch an investigation into her past.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who, along with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), began pressing for the declassification of Haspel records last year, said Monday that “I believe there is a significant amount of her background that can be declassified without compromising sensitive, classified information.”
Feinstein raised alarms on the left last week by telling reporters that Haspel had been “a good deputy director,” citing a personal dinner with the three-decade agency veteran. But within days, after taking a hit from her California primary challenger Kevin de Leon, Feinstein was aligning with Wyden and Heinrich in pushing for declassification.
White House legislative affairs director Marc Short didn’t rule out giving lawmakers access to some material, telling CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday: “I’m sure that we’re going to want to provide as much information as necessary, without compromising any international secrets.”
Two other Democrats being watched by advocacy groups are Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who opposed Pompeo for CIA but appeared open to Haspel last week, and Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who last year shifted from yes to no on a Trump nominee involved in the Bush-era legal memos that cleared the use of the interrogation tactics.
Manchin, an Intelligence Committee member, changed his stance on Steven Bradbury’s nomination to be Department of Transportation general counsel after getting a personal appeal from McCain. Given that Manchin opposed Bradbury for a DOT role that’s not connected to national security, activists are hopeful that the red-state Democrat and frequent Trump ally will also nix Haspel.
“There’s no rational argument for opposing Bradbury’s nomination and not opposing Haspel’s,” Scott Roehm, Washington office director for the nonprofit Center for Victims of Torture, said in an interview.
Manchin has declined to indicate how he’ll vote on Haspel or Pompeo ahead of meetings with the nominees. Pompeo met on Monday with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who is eyeing a confirmation hearing as soon as April 12 if the nomination paperwork is in on time.
Another Senate Democrat the left is closely watching on the nominations: Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who told POLITICO in a Friday statement that “neither confirmation is a sure thing.”
Schumer told reporters on the day Pompeo and Haspel were tapped, however, that he’s not yet urging his caucus to come out in opposition. And if he doesn’t whip against the nominees, the grass-roots activists the party is counting on to come out in November are likely going to be disappointed.
“The short answer is no. There is no reason for any Democrats to vote to confirm either Pompeo or Haspel,” said Elizabeth Beavers, policy manager for the liberal group Indivisible.