The Senate confirmed Mike Pompeo as secretary of state on Thursday despite lingering objections from Democrats who’ve questioned his record of hawkish policy positions and past controversial statements about minority groups. The split vote represents the political scrutiny Pompeo is likely to encounter as he moves from the CIA to the State Department, where he will the simultaneous challenges of reinvigorating an agency beset by flagging morale and answering for a president who is prone to impulsiveness.
Pompeo, who grew close to President Donald Trump as his CIA director, takes over at State as the United States faces a host of foreign policy challenges. Near term, a deadline looms for extending the Iran nuclear deal and for Trump’s historic denuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He will have a prominent role also in negotiating the Trump administration’s relationship with European allies and addressing Russian aggression.
On the latter, Pompeo has advocated more punitive actions than the president has been willing to mete out. In those and other matters, Pompeo is expected to strike a dramatically different tone with Trump than his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who had a testy relationship with the president that often left them publicly at odds. Tillerson also clashed with the professional staff of the department, who felt marginalized under his leadership. The 74,000 employees, two-thirds of them working abroad, will be looking for early cues that Pompeo appreciates their expertise and wants to return the State Department to its traditional place at the center of U.S. foreign policy.
He will have his hands full filling crucial jobs. Eight of the nine senior staff positions at State are unfilled, as are 60 ambassadorships and 10 of the 22 assistant secretary positions. The department is the only agency in the Trump administration that still has a hiring freeze in place. Pompeo has vowed to address staffing shortages immediately and end the freeze. Last week, he also indicated to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he would be open to more funding than the 30 percent budget cut the White House has proposed for the department, telling senators that even if Tillerson had said he wouldn’t know what to do with even one additional dollar in funds, ‘‘I’ll take the extra dollar.’’