He recently denounced high-profile nominees for supporting certain torture methods.
Headlines flashing over cable news networks last week might have given you 2017 déjà vu.
Last January, it was President Donald Trump’s nomination of then-Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo for the position of CIA director. Eyeing Pompeo’s ambivalence on civil rights issues like the use of torture and domestic mass surveillance, Senate Democrats — with the notable addition of Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul — voted against the nomination, but ultimately failed to block the President’s nominee from taking office.
The next time Pompeo came to the public’s attention, the only difference was another new post. After firing Rex Tillerson via Twitter last week, Mr. Trump once again tapped Pompeo to move up, this time to Secretary of State. And once again, Sen. Paul loudly announced his opposition to both Pompeo and Gina Haspel, his proposed replacement at the CIA. Haspel has worked with the CIA for decades and was a central player in several torture scandals in the agency during the early 2000’s.
“We’re not simply talking about a run-of-the-mill CIA agent here. Haspel was someone in a position of power who presided over practices that epitomized the abuse of that power,” Sen. Paul wrote in a column for Fox News last week. “Unfortunately, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo has also defended such actions in the past.”
“A pledge to oppose Haspel and Pompeo for their respective nominations might help to maintain Sen. Paul’s public image as a political maverick.”
Sen. Paul’s reluctance to support promoting nominees like Pompeo and Haspel to top diplomatic and national security positions is easily justifiable. While speaking to CNN on Sunday, he doubled down on promises to do “whatever it takes” to keep “people who are eager for war” out of top U.S. diplomatic posts. But while his definition of who constitutes a warmonger hits the mark, Sen. Paul seems to take a much broader approach to doing “whatever it takes” to block the President’s bad appointees.
A pledge to oppose Haspel and Pompeo for their respective nominations might help to maintain Sen. Paul’s public image as a political maverick. But what exactly has he had to give up to parade his opposition to foreign policy hawks and bureaucrats willing to cut corners on civil liberties? Sen. Paul’s “no” vote on Pompeo’s previous CIA nomination didn’t cost the GOP anything at all — the nominee was handily confirmed by a 66 to 32 margin. In that context, it’s hard to see any serious repercussions coming from the party leadership.
If he wants his claims to be a principled conservative to be taken seriously, Sen. Paul needs to work much harder to keep Pompeo from the State Department. Of course, a single senator can only have so much power— but he should recognize just how much power he has in a Senate chamber split almost evenly between the two parties. Provided Democrats uniformly oppose Pompeo and Haspel, his defecting would force Vice President Mike Pence to cast a tie-breaking vote. With just one more Republican defection, Sen. Paul could see what he claims to be his policy preference become reality.
Fortunately, an easy path exists for the libertarian-leaning senator to garner votes against the president’s nominees. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who voted for Pompeo for CIA director last year, has more recently appeared publicly ambivalent about continued support for him, as well as mixed feelings about Haspel’s record on torture. And while his comments on Twitter on the two nominees are far from conclusive opposition, they still signal an opening for Sen. Paul to take. He could reflect and act on the potential for broader conservative opposition to Mr. Trump’s candidates.
In the age of President Trump, congressional Republicans have gained a well-deserved reputation for ineffectiveness and inaction. For every leader in the GOP who has called Mr. Trump out on his gross moral and political failings, there’s a Republican who has turned around and backed the president’s corrupt agenda.
Sen. Paul is right: Pompeo, Haspel and their shared record of openness toward the use of torture should represent a crisis to the American conscience. What’s left to be seen is whether he turns conscience into action.
Henry Glitz is a student at the University of Pittsburgh.