U.S. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that his CIA chief “got along really well” with Kim Jong Un during a secret meeting in North Korea, holding up the highly unusual talks as a reason to confirm Mike Pompeo as secretary of state.
Republican lawmakers also supported the visit, as the U.S. administration prepared for a historic summit aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, and pushed for Pompeo’s rapid confirmation as top diplomat. But that prospect hung in the balance as Democrats lined up against him and questioned why they weren’t briefed on the meeting.
Pompeo’s trip took place over Easter weekend, just over two weeks ago, according to White House officials. He is the most senior U.S. official to meet with a North Korean leader since Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim’s father in Pyongyang in 2000.
Pompeo’s promotion to his new post is not assured.
As Republicans including Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, rallied around Pompeo’s nomination, Democrats on the panel came out in opposition.
Sen. Robert Menendez, top-ranking Democrat on the committee that will have the first vote on confirmation, expressed frustration that the CIA chief had not briefed him on the visit that took place more than a week before Pompeo’s public hearing last Thursday.
“Now I don’t expect diplomacy to be negotiated out in the open, but I do expect for someone who is the nominee to be secretary of state, when he speaks with committee leadership and is asked specific questions about North Korea, to share some insights about such a visit,” Menendez said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The committee is expected to vote on the nomination next week. Pompeo, whose hawkish foreign policy views and comments about minorities have raised Democratic hackles, would replace Rex Tillerson who was pushed out by Trump last month.
Trump provided the first public confirmation of Pompeo’s meeting after dropping a heavy hint Tuesday when he disclosed direct talks at “extremely high levels” between the U.S. and North Korea. He said five locations are under consideration for the summit, which could take place by early June. It would be the first such leadership summit after six decades of hostility following the Korean War.
“Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!” tweeted on Wednesday from his Florida estate, where he was hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Trump later told reporters that Pompeo “had a great meeting Kim Jong Un and got along with him really well, really great.” He said his nominee is “very smart but he gets along with people,” and he predicted that Pompeo would “go down as one of the great secretaries of state.”
It is not unprecedented for U.S. intelligence officials to serve as conduits for communication with Pyongyang, in addition to the more conventional diplomatic back channel between the State Department and the North Korean mission at the U.N.
In 2014, the then-director of U.S. national intelligence, James Clapper, secretly visited North Korea to bring back two American detainees. Clapper did not, however, meet with Kim, who has only in recent weeks emerged from international seclusion after taking power six years ago and super-charging North Korea’s push to become a nuclear power that can threaten America with missiles. Kim met last month with China’s president and is to meet South Korea’s leader April 27.
In the U.S. Senate, Republicans have a single-vote advantage on the 21-member panel that will have the first say on Pompeo’s nomination. With nine of the 10 Democrats already declaring they will oppose Pompeo, and at least one Republican, Rand Paul of Kentucky, also opposed, the panel could be forced to take the unusual step of sending the nomination to the full Senate without a favourable recommendation.
Trump said Wednesday he expects Paul to come through on Pompeo. The president called Paul and the senator agreed to meet with Pompeo, but Paul’s spokesman said, “Nothing else has changed.”
As for opposition by Democrats, Republican Cory Gardner, who chairs an Asia subcommittee, said in an interview that they “want to play partisan politics.”
Despite meeting Pompeo Tuesday, Gardner said he hadn’t been briefed on the trip and was awaiting more information about it. Still, he said the fact that the meeting happened gave weight to Pompeo’s testimony last week that the administration was committed to the “complete and verifiable denuclearization” of North Korea and sustaining sanctions pressure.
Pompeo had said the summit could lay out the conditions for an agreement and “set us down the course of achieving a diplomatic outcome that America and the world so desperately need.”
While key lawmakers overseeing foreign policy had been unaware of Pompeo’s trip, Congress wasn’t left totally unaware of the clandestine diplomacy. Sen. Mark Warner, top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, spoke with Pompeo last week about his trip to North Korea, according to a congressional staffer who requested anonymity to discuss it.
China, North Korea’s closest ally, also welcomed direct contact and talks between the U.S. and North Korea. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying urged a political resolution of tensions on the Korean Peninsula and setting up a peace mechanism. The Koreas are technically still in a state of war after fighting in the 1950-53 Korean War ended with a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.