CIA Director Mike Pompeo secretly met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over Easter weekend. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
 April 18 at 11:30 AM 
Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo’s newly disclosed trip to North Koreato lay the groundwork for denuclearization talks is earning him grudging praise from senators opposed to his bid to be the nation’s top diplomat — a potentially important development as Pompeo tries to shore up at least some Democratic support for his confirmation vote.

“I’m glad that there’s some preparatory work happening for this potential summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Wednesday morning on MSNBC. “I’m very worried that this summit is going to go very badly . . . but I think we should all admit that it’s good, not bad, that the Trump administration is trying to do some work ahead of this meeting, perhaps setting the stage for success rather than failure.”

“The preparation, certainly, is welcome — there’s no way that Donald Trump should go into that meeting without a lot of groundwork being laid,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, also speaking on MSNBC. But, he added, as the current CIA director, “Pompeo is the wrong person to be engaging in diplomacy.”

The news that Pompeo traveled to Pyongyang as the Trump administration’s envoy to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is unlikely to change the minds of any Democratic senators who have already pledged to oppose Pompeo’s nomination — meaning that his chances of getting a favorable recommendation from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are still seriously in jeopardy. Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Wednesday, the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), acknowledged that while a denuclearized North Korea was a noble goal, the planned meeting between Trump and Kim “is not a strategy” and announced that he would oppose Pompeo’s confirmation.

But for other Democrats who supported Pompeo in the past, the revelation that he is already conducting high-level diplomacy for the Trump administration could be the cover they need to back his bid to lead the State Department.

“What people may not have realized is that for years, we have kept back channels to North Korea through intelligence . . . it’s perfectly natural, then, that he would be the person to have the first meeting and sit down,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said Wednesday at a media breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. He added that he did not believe the North Korea trip would negatively affect Pompeo’s chances at confirmation.

“It’s hard to say that Pompeo is not qualified,” Corker argued, saying that many Democrats were trying to block Pompeo’s confirmation simply because they see him as a proxy for opposing Trump.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on Pompeo’s nomination next week. If he is unable to secure the support of a majority of the panel — where Democrats and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are expected to oppose his nomination — Corker can still send the nomination to the full Senate for a vote with an unfavorable recommendation. It is expected that some Democrats on the floor will vote to confirm him. Pompeo probably needs at least one Democrat to back his nomination on the floor to be confirmed, as Paul has already declared his opposition and Sen. John McCain (R) is back home in Arizona, receiving treatment for a rare and serious form of brain cancer.

Fourteen Democrats backed Pompeo’s nomination to be CIA director last year, and of those, several have said they will not be supporting him to be secretary of state — including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, and Foreign Relations Committee members Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.) and Tim Kaine (Va.).

But others, such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), have sounded positive notes about Pompeo. On Tuesday, Manchin said that he had met with Pompeo and that their meeting went well.

Top Democrats in the House — which does not weigh in on confirmations — also have applauded Pompeo’s North Korea venture.

“I think it’s good news for diplomacy,” the House Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), said Wednesday on MSNBC. Schiff has frequently criticized the Trump administration’s policy decisions in the past.

“I’m glad that the meeting took place,” he added. “This looks like preparations.”

Philip Rucker contributed to this report.

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