Live Coverage

Senate Confirmation Hearings: Day 3

Lawmakers will question Representative Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s pick to head the CIA; Ben Carson, the housing secretary nominee; and James Mattis, the nominee for secretary of defense.

Representative Mike Pompeo testifies before a Senate Intelligence hearing on his nomination to head the CIA. Carlos Barria / Reuters

The third day of Senate confirmation hearings is under way.

Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas, Donald Trump’s pick to lead the CIA, will testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee. His hearing comes as the president-elect continues to lob criticism at the U.S. intelligence community, most recently following uncorroborated reports that Russia possesses compromising information about him.

Retired Marine General James Mattis, the nominee for secretary of defense, and former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the nominee for housing secretary, are also scheduled for confirmation hearings on Thursday. Mattis will testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Housing Committee will hear from Carson.

We’ll bring you the latest updates from Capitol Hill as events unfold. Also see our continuing coverage:


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Democrats Get a Concession From Carson Over Conflicts of Interest

Zach Gibson / AP

The hearing on Ben Carson’s nomination to be secretary of housing and urban development is over. But just before it concluded, Democrats won a small concession from the nominee over the president-elect’s potential conflicts of interest.

The issue had been brought up early in the hearing by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who asked Carson if he could ensure “that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president-elect and his family.”

Carson would not give a straight yes or no answer, saying he didn’t want to say he would quash a valuable program just because a certain family benefits from it. Trump has interests in at least one project that benefits from HUD subsidies, called Starrett City, in New York.

In the second round of questioning, Senator Sherrod Brown suggested that it could be difficult to avoid an appearance of conflict of interest should any issues arise with that property. Carson, in response, said he hoped the committee would come up with a suggestion on how to deal with such projects.

“Would you commit to report back on any issue that should arise on a property owned by Mr. Trump or his family, and any contact you or any subordinates receive from the Trump Organization or the White House or any other source, other than normal back-and-forth between a project and its officials?” Brown asked.

“I would be more than delighted to discuss that,” Carson said.

“Will you set up a process to identify those conflicts?” Brown asked.

“I will work with you to set that up,” Carson said.

The interactions between Brown and Carson were some of the most lively of the hearing, with Brown repeatedly asking Carson whether he believes that HUD has a role in ensuring that all Americans have access to safe and affordable housing. In his opening statement, he seemed to express significant doubt that Carson is the right nominee for the job.

“In one of the few statements he's made on the subject of this hearing and the subject of his new job, and one of the few statements he has made on housing policy, he called into question more than four decades of civil-rights law. He disparaged HUD's efforts to reduce segregation as ‘social-engineering schemes designed to legislate racial equality,’" Brown said.

But Carson got his own chance to comment on Brown. After Brown said he had one more question, Carson quipped, “You remind me of Columbo,” referring to the title character in a TV series starring Peter Falk.

“Is that good or bad?” Brown answered. “I’ve actually heard that before.”

Senate Approves Waiver for General Mattis to Lead Defense Department

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Updated at 3:43 p.m. ET

The Senate voted 81-17 to grant retired Marine Corps General James Mattis a waiver to serve as secretary of defense. Current law prohibits military officials from heading the Pentagon within seven years of their retirement; Mattis retired from the Corps in 2013.

The approval follows a vote in the Senate Armed Services Committee that voted 24-3 vote to grant Mattis the waiver. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Richard Blumenthal—all Democrats on the panel—voted against granting Mattis a waiver, noting that they believe civilians should retain control over the military. All 14 Republicans and 10 Democrats on the panel voted in favor of the measure.

Such waivers are rare: One was last granted in 1950 when President Harry Truman nominated General George Marshall to be his defense secretary.

Mattis was also scheduled to appear Thursday before a House Armed Services Committee on the waiver issue, but the Trump transition team canceled that appearance. Mattis needs the House to pass a waiver as well.

Is WikiLeaks a Credible Source of Information? Trump's Pick to Lead the CIA Doesn't Think So

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Mike Pompeo, who President-elect Donald Trump hopes will serve as the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said Thursday that he does not believe that the document-disclosure website WikiLeaks is reliable.

“I have never believed that WikiLeaks was a credible source of information,” Pompeo said, in response to questioning by Independent Senator Angus King.

That statement could put Pompeo at odds with the president-elect. Trump treated WikiLeaks as a de facto ally in his campaign against Hillary Clinton after the website made public hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. “These WikiLeaks emails confirm what those of us here today have known all along. Hillary Clinton is the vessel of a corrupt global establishment that’s raiding our country and surrendering the sovereign of our nation,” Trump said in November.

A recently released U.S. intelligence report stated with “high confidence” that Russian intelligence services “relayed material … acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks.” That statement was part of its assessment that Russia carried out an influence campaign during the presidential election aimed at undermining Clinton.

Mattis on Israel's Capital: 'I Stick With the U.S. Policy'

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Senator Lindsey Graham began his questioning of James Mattis by asking the defense secretary nominee for his views on the capital of the Jewish state—a soon-to-be-contentious issue, given President-elect Donald Trump’s vow to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.   

“What’s the capital of Israel?” asked Graham, the Republican from South Carolina.

“The capital of Israel that I go to is Tel Aviv, because that’s where all their government people are,” Mattis replied.

“Do you agree with me that the capital of Israel is Jerusalem?” Graham followed up.

“Sir, right now I stick with the U.S. policy,” Mattis said. U.S. policy currently recognizes Tel Aviv as Israel’s capital—though that might change in a Trump administration.

Graham followed up: “Do you support moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem?”

“I would defer,” Mattis replied, “to the nominee for secretary of state [Rex Tillerson] on that.” Tillerson’s view on moving the embassy isn’t known.

The embassy’s location has long been controversial. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. Congress has committed to moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which the Jewish state views as its eternal, undivided capital. But Palestinians regard the eastern portion of Jerusalem as the capital of its future state. The international community, meanwhile, has maintained that Jerusalem is one of the final-status issues to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians as part of a two-state solution.

American presidents since Bill Clinton have opposed any move, citing national-security interests. But Trump has vowed to relocate the embassy, and his nominee for the position of ambassador to Israel both supports the move and is known to be hostile to a two-state solution. As for whether that solution is viable, Mattis said Thursday he would support it “if it brings peace to the Middle East.”

The Tension Between Cutting the Budget and Running a Department

Credit: Zach Gibson / AP

Many of Donald Trump’s Cabinet appointees are skeptical about the role of government in solving social problems. Ben Carson, who has been nominated to be the secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, is one of them. He also has spoken frequently about the importance of reducing government spending.

This worries some housing advocates who don’t want to see government housing programs cut. Just how much Carson might want to cut certain HUD programs came up in Carson’s confirmation hearing Thursday.

“You propose that every federal agency should trim their budgets with a 10 percent across-the-board cut,” said Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, asking if Carson truly believed in the mission of HUD.

“We can never seem to cut because people have their programs and they say this one is sacred and this one is not,” Carson said. “The point being is if we can find a number on which we agree and begin to cut back, we can begin to think about fiscal responsibility,” he said. “Bear in mind, we are approaching $820 trillion national debt.”

Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Mastro expressed concern about Carson’s comments on the limits of public housing. “You said we don’t want people vegetating in public housing,” she said. “Those comments were concerning to me.”

Again, Carson insisted that thinking of the budget was important, even while providing social services.

“We have to be cognizant of our fiscal responsibilities,” he said. “Would we love to put every single person in a beautiful unit for ever? Absolutely. But we don’t have the necessary funding,” he said. However, he added, “I would never advocate abolishing them without having an alternative route.”  

Carson’s opinions on the size and scope of HUD were further illuminated in a back and forth with Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina, who also wants to see cuts to government spending, and particularly, in HUD.

“When you go into Housing and Urban Development, can I get your guarantee that you will look at every program and determine which ones are actually providing the benefit to that next Ben Carson who may come up with his mom and be a neurosurgeon? And eliminate every single obstacle in the way?” Tillis asked.

“You can absolutely get my guarantee on that,” Carson said.

“Do you think there are any sacred cows in HUD that stand in the way of that outcome?” Tillis asked.

“I've been studying it carefully and I haven't seen one yet,” Carson said.

“Do you think that to a certain extent over the years we've gone from providing housing to providing warehousing for an unacceptable number of people who are supported through the federal government?” Tillis asked.

“Well, the key to your question there was the word unacceptable. And yes, absolutely,” Carson said.

“Do you believe that HUD and the other agencies have creeped their scopes over time and that you can be someone who may say that HUD needs to be smaller, or some other organization needs to be smaller so that the people best able to provide the safety net, the agency best positioned to provide the safety net can do it, and you can complement in some points and take the lead in others?”

“I believe we need to be much more efficient,” Carson said.

Trump's CIA Nominee Says He Won't Reinstate Enhanced Interrogation Techniques

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Mike Pompeo, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, said on Thursday that he would “absolutely not” bring back the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, methods used during the George W. Bush era and typically associated with the war on terror.

Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein asked Pompeo: “If you were ordered by the president to restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, that fall outside of the Army Field Manual, would you comply?” Pompeo responded definitively: “Absolutely not.”

“I can’t imagine that I would be asked that by the president-elect or then president,” he added.

Yet, during his presidential campaign, Trump indicated that he would support bringing back the use of waterboarding, a technique Naureen Shah, Amnesty International USA’s director of Security and Human Rights, wrote about just last year. “Media and public figures often describe waterboarding as a form of ‘enhanced interrogation’”—“a euphemism,” she wrote, “that rationalizes and sanitizes torture.”

Asked by George Stephanopoulos in a 2015 interview if the United States should “bring back enhanced interrogation like waterboarding,” Trump replied: “Well, we have to be strong. … I would bring it back, yes. ... I would absolutely bring back interrogation and strong interrogation.”

Gillibrand, Mattis Engage in a Pointed Exchange on Women, Gays in the Military

They weren’t smiling today. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democrat from New York, pressed James Mattis about his past remarks on women serving in infantry positions, as well as gays in the military. She quoted him as saying in 2015, “The idea of putting women in there is not setting them up for success.”

“Have you changed your view on this issue?” Gillibrand asked Mattis.

He replied: “I’m not coming in looking for problems. I’m looking for ways to get the department so its at its most lethal stance, and in that regard, it’s all about military readiness.”

“Do you plan to oppose women serving in these combat roles?” Gillibrand countered.

“I have no plans to oppose women in any aspect of our military,” Matti said. But he added: “I believe that if we’re going to execute policies like this, we better train our leaders so they can handle all things that come from a policy that’s decided in this town.”  

Gillibrand then cited Mattis’s book Warriors and Citizens in which he outlined his opposition to gays openly serving in the military, as well as women serving in combat and infantry positions.

“We fear that an uninformed public is permitting political leaders to impose an accretion of social convention that are diminishing the combat power of our military, disregarding our war-fighting practitioners’ advice,” he wrote.

Gillibrand asked him: “Do you believe that openly serving homosexuals, along with women in combat positions, is undermining our” military?

His reply: “Senator, my belief is we have to stay focused on a military that is so lethal on the battlefield that it’ll be the enemy’s longest day and their worst day when they run into” them. “I’m not going in with the idea that i’m going to review these” changes “that have been put in place, and right away start rolling something back.”

Mattis also said: “I’ve never come into any job with an agenda … of changing anything. I come in assuming the people before me deserve respect for the job they did and the decisions they made.”

Gillibrand has also said she opposes granting the waiver to Mattis to become defense secretary not because of his views on women and gays, but because she believes in civilian oversight of the military.

Will Government Housing Funds Benefit Trump's Real-Estate Business?

Zach Gibson / AP

Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest as president have long been controversial. (The Atlantic has documented them here.) They surfaced again in the confirmation hearing of Ben Carson, who has been nominated to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Trump is, after all, a real-estate developer, and HUD governs some low-income real-estate development. In her allotted questioning time, Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren wanted to make sure that no HUD money would go to Trump during his presidency.

“If you are confirmed to lead HUD, you'll be responsible for issuing billions of dollars in grants and loans to help develop housing and provide a lot of housing-related services,” she said. “Now, housing development is an area in which President-elect Trump and his family have significant business interests. Can you assure me that not a single taxpayer dollar that you give out will financially benefit the president-elect and his family?”

Carson would not say yes or no.

“It will not be my intention to do anything to benefit any American particularly,” he said. But, he said, “If there happens to be an extraordinarily good program that's working for millions of people and it turns out that someone that you're targeting is going to gain $10 from it, am I going to say, no, the rest of you Americans can't have it?”

Warren wasn’t happy with this answer, and launched into a speech about how Trump should be divesting his assets and putting them into a blind trust.

“The problem is that you can't assure us that HUD money, not of $10 varieties but of multimillion-dollar varieties, will not end up in the president-elect's pockets,” she said.

Trump’s Pick to Lead the CIA: ‘Russia Has Reasserted Itself Aggressively’

Carlos Barria / Reuters

If he wins confirmation as head of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo, a Republican Representative from Kansas, would find himself working as an intermediary between president-elect Donald Trump and a key agency of the U.S. intelligence community, which Trump has at times disparaged.

In his opening statement to the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday, Pompeo took aim at Russia, saying that “Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe and doing nothing to aid in the destruction and the defeat of ISIS.”

Pompeo did not specifically mention the assertions of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia directed an influence campaign to interfere in the presidential election and undermine Hillary Clinton’s White House bid. Under questioning, however, Pompeo signaled that he accepts the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies regarding Russian involvement in the election, which included hacking the Democratic National Committee.

Democratic Senator Mark Warner asked Pompeo if he accepts the conclusions of the intelligence community regarding Russia, to which Pompeo responded: “I do. I’ve had one briefing. I attended the meeting at which the president-elect was briefed. Everything I’ve seen suggests to me that the report has an analytical product that is sound,” referencing a recently-released intelligence report.

Trump on Wednesday said: “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia,” when pressed on whether he accepts the conclusions of the intelligence agencies on Russia’s involvement in the election. It was the first time the president-elect had clearly indicated that he accepted the conclusions of U.S. intelligence agencies as to who was responsible for the hacking.

Pompeo also singled out cybersecurity as a key priority for the CIA, and noted that Russia is an adversary in that realm. “One emerging area for increased focus is the cyber domain. Sophisticated adversaries, like China and Russia,” he said, “as well as less sophisticated adversaries, like Iran and North Korea, terrorist groups, criminal organizations and hackers, are all taking advantage of this new borderless environment. The CIA must continue to be at the forefront of this issue.”

Carson's Views About the Role of Government Are Front and Center

Zach Gibson / AP

In a 2015 op-ed in The Washington Times, Ben Carson wrote of his opposition to an Obama-era rule in the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The rule, which I’ve written about here, would require communities to work harder to ensure that housing in their area is integrated. The rule and other efforts, like busing, to require more integration are “social engineering,” Carson wrote, and they don’t work. “These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse.”

After Donald Trump nominated Carson to lead HUD in his new administration, these words made housing activists worried; HUD’s role, after all, is in part to enforce the Fair Housing Act, which essentially makes sure all Americans have access to safe and affordable housing in integrated neighborhoods. HUD is obligated to “affirmatively further fair housing,” according to the Fair Housing Act, but activists worried that Carson was skeptical about the role of government in intervening in neighborhoods.

Democrats hit hard on this point at Carson’s Senate confirmation hearing Thursday.

“Dr. Carson has repeatedly commented that government-assistance programs are harmful,” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown said in his opening statement. Brown later followed up on Carson’s Washington Times piece, asking him to elaborate. Does he have a problem with the Obama administration rule?

Not necessarily, Carson said. What he has a problem with, he explained, is when Washington determines what should be done in local communities. He doesn’t have a problem with affirmative action, Carson said, and he doesn’t have a problem with integration.

“What I believe to be the case is we have people sitting around desks in Washington, D.C., deciding on how things should be done,” he said. “I do have a problem with people on high dictating it when they don’t know anything about what’s going on in the area.”

“Your objection is not to ‘affirmatively further,’” Brown asked, “your objection is whether that’s done from Washington or the HUD office in Columbus, Ohio.”

“My objection is central dictation of people's lives,” Carson said.

Senator Bob Menendez followed up on this point. “Do you truly believe in the mission of HUD?” he asked. He specifically wondered whether Carson thought the government should continue to provide rental assistance to the 4.5 million households receiving it.

“I think the program is essential,” Carson said. “When it comes to entitlement programs, it is cruel and unusual punishment to withdraw those programs before you provide an alternative.”

When asked by Republican Senator Mike Crapo to expound on his views about the role of government in helping the poor, Carson said he believes that Americans are compassionate, and that “I feel strongly that we should do everything we can” to help the poor.

“For people to imply that I don’t understand that or don’t want to do anything for poor people, I believe they are perhaps only looking at words that have been skewed, and not at actions,” he said.

Mattis Calls Iran Nuclear Deal 'Imperfect,' but Says U.S. Must Live Up to It

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

When asked by Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, what he thought about the agreement the United States and other world powers reached with Iran on its nuclear program, James Mattis suggested he’d support the pact as defense secretary.

“It is an imperfect agreement,” said Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general. “It is not a friendship treaty. But when America gives its word, we must live up to it.”

Mattis has made similar comments in the past about the nuclear agreement. He previously called Iran “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” but has dismissed the idea that the deal should be torn up, as many of its opponents have demanded. “We are going to have to recognize that we have an imperfect arms-control agreement,” he said last year. “What we achieved was a nuclear pause, not a nuclear halt. We're going to have to plan for the worst.”

His “anti-Iran animus” is allegedly what drove the Obama administration to force his retirement from the Marine Corps in 2013.

Putin Is 'Trying to Break the North Atlantic Alliance,' Mattis Says

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Updated at 11:57 a.m. ET

Under questioning from Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, James Mattis outlined what he said were the challenges posed by Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

The United States must “recognize he’s trying to break the North Atlantic Alliance,” said Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general and defense secretary nominee. He added that the United States has a long history of engagement with Russia, starting with the Yalta Conference in 1945, but a “relatively short list of successes in that regard.”

He said the current world order, forged by the United States after World War II, is “under attack … from Russia, terrorist groups, and from what China is doing in the South China Sea.” He said he believes the United States doesn’t “have a strong enough military” to deter all these threats. Trump, for his part, has said he will work with Russia in Syria to defeat ISIS.

When pressed later in the hearing, about engagement in Russia in other parts of the world—something Trump has championed—Mattis replied: “I'm all for engagement, but we also have to recognize reality and what Russia is up to. And there's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.”

Mattis Lists Challenges Facing the United States

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

In his prepared testimony, retired Marine Corps General James Mattis listed the challenges he said face the United States. From his remarks:

We see each day a world awash in change; our country is still at war in Afghanistan and our troops are fighting against ISIS and other terrorist groups in the Middle East and elsewhere. Russia is raising grave concerns on several fronts and China is shredding trust along its periphery. Increasingly, we see islands of stability in our hemisphere, in Europe, and in Asia under attack by non-state actors and nations that mistakenly see their security in the insecurity of others. We find ourselves embracing the dual reality of seeking engagement and cooperation where we can, yet defending our interests where we must. While our military maintains capable land, air, and sea forces, the cyber and space domains now demand an increasing share of our attention and investment. These realities represent the prominent challenges facing our military and the gravity of my leadership task if you choose to confirm me.

Mattis also outlined the challenges facing the U.S. military, noting “we have no God-given right to victory on the battlefield.”

The reset of our force has been inadequate: Our military gear is heavily used and it has not been properly and fully reconstituted following 15 years of deployment and conflict. Maintenance has been insufficient: If we do not maintain our gear, the money we spend on acquisition is wasted and we will have a hollow force. Future readiness is achieved through modernization, and that, too, has languished and is paying the price of sequestration.

He also offered clues regarding when he believes the use of military might is appropriate. “Our recent experiences have reminded us that we should engage more using all components of our national power, and use military force only when it is in the vital interest of the United States, when other elements of national power have been insufficient in protecting our national interests, and generally as a last resort,” he said.

Mattis also reiterated the United States’ commitment to its allies—and its treaty obligations. These statements could reassure NATO members discomforted by Donald Trump’s suggestion during the campaign that the United States should defend only those NATO allies who’ve paid their dues. Although the United States has long complained that other NATO countries don’t spend enough on defense, it has never made its treaty-obligated military support based on dues paid.   

“Strengthening our alliances requires finding common cause, even with imperfect partners; taking no ally for granted; and living up to our treaty obligations. When America gives its word, it must mean what it says,” Mattis said. But he added: “We must also promote and enlist commensurate support from all our allies. The American taxpayer should not carry a disproportionate part of our shared defense, and all who benefit should be expected to help carry their part of the burden.”

Waiver Looms Over Mattis's Senate Hearing

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

James Mattis, the defense secretary nominee who will appear Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a popular former Marine Corps general who was widely expected to have bipartisan support on the panel. But on Wednesday, there was a hiccup: Mattis canceled his scheduled appearance before another committee, the House Armed Services Committee, for a hearing on civilian control of the military—upsetting some Democrats who say it’s an attempt by the Trump transition team to bypass the legislative process.

Mattis retired from the Marine Corps in 2013, but the law forbids military officers from heading the Department of Defense for seven years after they retire. The House panel was considering giving him a waiver, and it’s now unclear when he will appear before that committee. Such waivers are rare: The last time it was granted was 1950 when President Truman nominated General George Marshall to be his defense secretary.

Senator John McCain, the chairman of the panel, said the Senate would vote on the waiver, later Thursday.