White House scrambling to shore up support for Trump's CIA pick

President Donald Trump is growing frustrated that his administration is facing the prospect of another contentious co...

Posted: May 8, 2018 2:58 PM
Updated: May 8, 2018 2:58 PM

President Donald Trump is growing frustrated that his administration is facing the prospect of another contentious confirmation battle as the President and his aides scramble to shore up support for Gina Haspel, Trump's pick to run the CIA, several sources tell CNN.

Trump stepped up his involvement in the rescue effort Saturday when he spoke with Haspel by phone, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation. The call came a day after Haspel offered to withdraw her nomination -- an offer she walked back after conversations with White House legislative affairs director Marc Short and Sarah Sanders, the press secretary.

During the phone call, Trump dismissed concerns about Haspel's role in past interrogations of suspected terrorists and voiced support for her nomination, a separate source said. Trump reiterated his support of Haspel in a Monday morning tweet.

Meanwhile, Haspel was on Capitol Hill Monday making the case for herself. She was scheduled to conduct multiple meetings with lawmakers who could decide her fate, a White House aide said. Those meetings included time with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a red-state Democrat whose vote is seen as crucial to her confirmation.

After meeting with Haspel for about 45 minutes, Manchin said he's "very open-minded" about her nomination and has a "curiosity" to hear what his other colleagues have to say and how she responds to questions during a confirmation hearing slated for Wednesday.

But foreshadowing the potential trouble ahead, Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday it was "unacceptable" how little material about Haspel has been made public - and he urged her to intervene herself.

Warner on Monday wrote a letter to Haspel, obtained by CNN, saying that the CIA has failed to make public the leadership and supervisory positions Haspel held at CIA headquarters. Warner also wrote that the information the CIA has released thus far about Haspel, who is currently acting CIA director, opens the agency up "to the criticism that it is only releasing favorable materials while suppressing related items that could reflect negatively."

"Given that we are only two days from the date of your confirmation hearing on May 9, 2018, this lack of transparency for the American people about someone nominated for a cabinet-level position is unacceptable," Warner wrote.

The CIA dropped off a new batch of classified documents related to Haspel to the Monday, according to a source familiar with the matter. The source did not say what the documents contain because they're classified.

If Haspel wins Senate confirmation, her margin of victory will likely be razor thin. The uncertainty surrounding her fate is an unwelcome development for an administration recovering from the botched nomination of Ronny Jackson to become the secretary of Veterans Affairs, a failure that highlighted the White House's struggle to coordinate with Capitol Hill and professionalize its nominations process.

Sanders told reporters Monday Haspel is "100%" committed to seeing her confirmation process through. She said Haspel's goal is to ensure the "integrity of the CIA remains intact" and "isn't unnecessarily attacked."

Trump has vented that his team isn't doing enough to prevent the kind of headwinds that Haspel and other Cabinet picks have faced in the Senate, according to one White House official.

After the Jackson debacle, White House officials have taken a different approach with Haspel, touting her decades of service in the intelligence community and highlighting the bipartisan support she enjoys among former national security and intelligence officials.

Though Trump has expressed some private skepticism about Haspel, newly installed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior administration officials have convinced the President she still has a chance of surviving the confirmation process. Trump continues to support Haspel in part because he likes the optics of installing the first female director at the agency, two White House officials said.

Pompeo, the CIA's most recent director, played a major role in Trump's decision to nominate Haspel as his replacement. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have cited Haspel's ties to CIA torture tactics as a major red flag heading into her confirmation hearing slated for Wednesday.

Haspel oversaw a CIA black site in Thailand in 2002 where harsh interrogations were conducted, although she was not at the site when al Qaeda suspect Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times. She was also chief of staff to the director of the National Clandestine Service, Jose Rodriguez, in 2005 when the CIA tapes of interrogations were destroyed. Rodriguez wrote in his memoir that he asked Haspel to prepare a cable granting permission to destroy the tapes, though he made the decision. A 2011 internal review cleared Haspel of wrongdoing in the matter.

Trump has been receptive to the argument from some GOP allies that Haspel is part of what he has described as the "deep state," two sources told CNN. One Republican lawmaker warned Trump in a recent conversation that the White House's citation last week of supportive statements from James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, and John Brennan, former CIA director, did more to generate opposition to Haspel among some conservatives than support for her, one source familiar with the talk said.

Trump has labeled both Clapper and Brennan, former Obama administration officials, as liars and leakers.

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