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Sen. Bob Menendez Discusses Trump's Nominee For Secretary Of State

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Now we're going to hear about the person whose position Haspel would be filling. The current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, is President Trump's pick to become secretary of state. His first stop will be before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. The ranking member on that committee is Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey. And he joins us. Hello.

BOB MENENDEZ: Hi. Good to be with you.

MCCAMMON: You voted against confirming Mike Pompeo as CIA director last year. What were your concerns?

MENENDEZ: Well, my concerns were the positions that Director Pompeo had taken as it related to the use of waterboarding and other enhanced interrogation techniques which are problematic for me and the whole question of torture and his willingness to consider other forms of interrogation. And so that's not something that I believe is in the national interest or security of the United States. Is not who we are and what we stand for. And those are some of the reasons I voted against him.

MCCAMMON: Do you still have those concerns, and do you see those as an issue for this position, for secretary of state?

MENENDEZ: Well, I still have those concerns. And obviously there is a difference between being the head of the CIA and conducting, you know, covert operations, gathering intelligence and executing enemies and being the secretary of state, which is about bringing our allies in common cause and to get countries to sometimes do things that they are reluctant to do. That takes building coalitions. It takes use of, you know, a very robust diplomacy. And so there are two obviously very different skill sets.

MCCAMMON: So what other questions will you be asking Pompeo this time around?

MENENDEZ: Well, you know, Director Pompeo has had the ability to be engaged as, from what I understand, of advising the president several days a week on the intelligence reports of what's happening in the world. So we'll be asking him, for example, about North Korea. As director of the CIA, Mr. Pompeo has expressed some deep skepticism about diplomatic engagement with North Korea, a diplomatic engagement the president appears to support and which he, if confirmed, would need to implement.

We're going to ask him about how he views the nuclear agreement with Iran. He seems to have established a record of telling the president what he wants to hear based on subjective views and politics rather than giving him recommendations based on intelligence-driven assignments. These are all part of a broad range of foreign policy and national security questions we'll be asking.

MCCAMMON: Just to go a little further on some of that, Michael Hayden, the former CIA director, told The New York Times the agency was very pleased that Pompeo was so close to the president. He said he'd heard no one say that he's made the agency skew its analysis to make the White House happy. What do you make of that remark by Michael Hayden?

MENENDEZ: Well, he may not have skewed the intelligence, but that doesn't mean that he has used that intelligence to give him an intelligence-based assessment. I get a sense that in the freewheeling conversations that have been reported that the president has with Mr. Pompeo, that very often they go far afield from an intelligence-based and driven analysis.

And so, you know, certainly that will be a line of questioning. We need to know whether or not he believes in following an intelligence-based assessment or whether he has a more subjective view. And if so, what are those subjective views, and how do they - how does he derive them?

MCCAMMON: President Trump has made it clear that he and Pompeo get along pretty well. He and Rex Tillerson often seem to be reading from different scripts. Senator, do you think - whatever your differences may be on some of the issues with Pompeo, do you think there's an advantage to having a secretary of state who has the president's ear?

MENENDEZ: Well, clearly that is a value. You know, what happened by President Trump undermining Secretary Tillerson - when the secretary of state says one thing and the president consistently pulls the rug out from under him, it creates confusion and instability in the world. And it is part of the challenge that we have had in American diplomacy as well as a - an administration that has emaciated the State Department.

So having a nominee who has a good relationship with the president is important, but that doesn't override what - the positions that the nominee will take as it relates to strengthening this department, strengthening diplomacy. We have retracted from being a global leader, and when we do that, China and Russia are happy to fill the vacuum. And so these are all questions that will come towards director Pompeo as he's considered for the secretary of state position.

MCCAMMON: Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat from New Jersey - he's the ranking member on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Thanks for joining us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.