Paul elaborated on his thinking at the meeting before the vote. “I have not been given anything or promised anything,” he said, though he added that Trump had agreed to a discussion on his libertarian views on government surveillance. “I have changed my mind,” Paul said. “I decided to go ahead and vote for Director Pompeo because he assured me has learned the lesson and time will tell if those assurances are true.”
Paul, who has aligned himself with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, had criticized Pompeo as out of step with the president. “My biggest problem with your nomination is I don’t think it reflects the millions of people who voted for President Trump who actually voted for him because they thought he’d be different,” Paul told him at his confirmation hearing.
What may have helped persuade Paul to change his mind was the knowledge that the committee’s rejection of Pompeo would soon be rendered moot. The CIA director had received crucial endorsements earlier Monday afternoon from Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Joe Donnelly of Indiana, who joined Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota in committing their votes for Trump’s pick on the floor—virtually assuring his confirmation by the full Senate.
Republicans have a slim, 51 to 49 seat majority, and although Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona was also undecided, Paul was expected to be the only member of the party to oppose Pompeo. The support of at least three Democrats would have been enough. Had Paul not flipped at the last minute, Pompeo could have become the first Cabinet officer to win confirmation despite an unfavorable vote in committee since 1945, when former Vice President Henry Wallace overcame a similar rebuke in his bid to be commerce secretary in the final months of the Franklin Roosevelt administration.
Despite Paul’s support, the tight committee margin made for a difficult vote for Republicans. Because Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia had been absent, technically the vote was tied at 10 to 10. Isakson voted yes by proxy, but the committee rules require members to be present to send a nomination to the floor. The committee’s chairman, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, tried to get Democrats to agree to waive that rule, but they went into a brief recess early Monday evening to figure out what to do. Ultimately, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware agreed to vote present instead of no to allow the nomination to move forward instead of reconvening late in the night once Isakson returned from a funeral. Coons said he had expected the nomination to fail with Paul’s opposition, but once Paul flipped, he understood the vote would be successful one way or another.
In the last week, Trump administration officials had made an aggressive push either to flip Paul or to persuade Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee that their opposition to Pompeo in the panel vote would be for naught. “Mike Pompeo will be confirmed,” Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, an ally of the former Kansas congressman when the two served together in the House, vowed to reporters on a conference call arranged by the White House. “If the munchkin Metternichs on the Foreign Relations Committee want to vote against Mike Pompeo, the Senate will set them straight,” he added in a reference to the 19th-century chancellor of the Austrian empire who was toppled by revolution. (The Harvard-trained Cotton later referred to Democrats as “two-bit Talleyrands”—an apparent reference to the French diplomat who betrayed Napoleon.)