It would be more than mildly disappointing if the statesman responsible for halting Kim Jong Un’s nuclear ambitions and bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula after 60 long years turned out to be a slightly oafish Tea Party lawyer from Kansas rather than Dennis Rodman. It clicked immediately after his first trip to Pyongyang: If only Nixon could go to China, then surely The Worm is the only living American weird enough to reach the pudgy basketball-loving Swiss cheese-addicted despot whose hobbies include submarine warfare and feeding his relations to dogs.
Peace is welcome regardless of who is responsible for it, which is why I was heartened when I learned that Mike Pompeo, the director of the CIA and former Republican congressman appointed to be our next secretary of state, had traveled to North Korea over Easter weekend and met with Kim Jong Un in advance of the upcoming summit at which the dictator is set to meet with President Trump. Last summer Trump was casually tweeting about nuking Pyongyang. Anything looks like progress by comparison.
It would be a fittingly bizarre twist if Pompeo were able to accomplish this without ever actually becoming our nation’s top diplomat on paper. What if he doesn’t end up getting confirmed in the Senate next Monday? This is not as remote a contingency as it might seem. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announced that he would be voting against Pompeo almost immediately after the CIA director’s name was put forward. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), otherwise a reliable vote, is out of the picture. With the defeat of Roy Moore in Alabama last fall, there is one fewer Republican in the upper chamber than there was in 2017.
Rex Tillerson, a far less contentious choice than Pompeo who also benefited from the de-facto free pass usually afforded to presidents assembling a cabinet at the beginning of their first term, was confirmed with only three Democratic votes, those of Mark Warner (Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), and Joe Manchin (W.V.), plus one from the independent Angus King (Maine). Despite aggressive lobbying from the White House, there is very little evidence that Democrats are going to play ball.
Indeed, over the last several weeks Senate Democrats have been engaged in a kind of desperate contest to see who can come up with the most stringent assertion of Pompeo’s world-historic unfitness for the job. Tim Kane (Va.) argued that Pompeo is someone who seems to “oppose diplomacy,” not in specific circumstances but as a blanket category, which is not, I guess, totally unimaginable in an administration in which the commissioner of the EPA hates the environment. Cory Booker unburdened himself of the opinion that Trump’s choice is a man who does not “love the people,” as opposed, no doubt, to all previous 69 secretaries of state, who uniformly adored “the people.” Diane Feinstein, who as mayor of San Francisco in 1982 vetoed same-sex domestic partnership legislation passed by the city council, said that Pompeo’s objection to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges were “not the words of a diplomat.”
So far Heitkamp is the only member of her party who has committed herself to a yes vote. In a brief statement on Thursday afternoon she explained that Pompeo is "committed to empowering the diplomats at the State Department so they can do their jobs in [sic] advancing American interests." Good to hear! Meanwhile Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who is polling significantly behind a generic Republican opponent in one of the nation’s most right-leaning states, has given no indication of her intentions. Ditto Manchin.
Probably the most likely outcome is that at least one of the latter two senators also comes through and Trump narrowly gets his man after all. The question is whether this will work for him again. He was lucky to get an empty suit like Alex Azar into the Department of Health and Human Services by a 55-43 vote in January after the firing of Tom Price. What about the replacements for David Shulkin at the VA and, inevitably, Scott Pruitt at the EPA and Ben Carson at HUD and goodness knows how many other heads who are bound to roll before the end of the year?
The Democrats have absolutely nothing to lose by exaggerating the badness of the president’s new appointees and voting against them. They get to score some cheap wokeness cred with their base at the Human Rights Campaign and the offices of Teen Vogue while keeping the administration in more of a shambles than it already is. This is to say nothing of the possibility of one or two well-timed Republican defections. How far away are we from soon-to-be retirees like Bob Corker or Jeff Flake or possibly even McCain himself saying no to one of the president’s men out of pure spite?
Trump’s Friday afternoon shuffling around of his cabinet has been a welcome distraction for journalists lately and a good way to keep ratings and Twitter engagement levels high. We’ll see how well it works out for him when high-ranking Senate Democrats announce that his hand-picked successor to, say, Sonny Perdue at the Department of Agriculture is not only unqualified but totally unfit for office because he once liked a tweet making fun of Hamilton.