WASHINGTON — Gina Haspel’s nomination to be CIA director received a crucial boost Saturday when Sen. Joe Donnelly became the second Democrat to support President Donald Trump’s choice despite questions about her role in the previous decade’s controversial interrogation program.
The senator from Indiana, who met with Haspel on Thursday, said in a statement that he had “a tough, frank, and extensive discussion” with her that covered both her vision for the agency and its past use of “enhanced” interrogations against terrorist captives, including methods such as waterboarding that are widely considered torture. While some senators still have not publicly declared their position, Donnelly’s backing is likely to give Haspel enough support to win at least 50 votes, the bare minimum for confirmation.
During her confirmation hearing, Haspel pledged to abide by the current law that forbids those methods and that she would reject an order from Trump to use those techniques against a terrorist now.
“I believe that she has learned from the past, and that the CIA under her leadership can help our country confront serious international threats and challenges,” Donnelly said in the statement released Saturday morning.
He also cited her support from the CIA directors who served in the Obama administration as a reason for backing Haspel.
Donnelly joins Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-West Virginia, as the only other Democrat to announce support for Haspel. Both of them hail from states that Trump won by overwhelming margins. Donnelly and Manchin are up for re-election in November, and Trump appeared at a political rally Thursday in Indiana, in which he singled out Donnelly and called on voters to support the Republican nominee, Mike Braun.
Haspel’s chances of winning confirmation improved following a hearing that, while contentious, featured no major missteps by the nominee. Shortly after the hearing adjourned, Manchin, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, declared his support for Haspel.
In a closed session following Haspel’s public testimony, the mood was less tense and more familiar, according to people familiar with the proceedings who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions. Haspel spoke in Russian at one point, underscoring her long experience running clandestine operations against Russia, these people said.
The Intelligence Committee is expected to hold a vote on Haspel on Wednesday, according to sources familiar with the panel’s timing, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, would then like to hold a full confirmation vote the following week before the Senate adjourns for the weeklong Memorial Day recess.
Haspel’s nomination came after Mike Pompeo, Trump’s first CIA director, was nominated to be secretary of state; the Senate confirmed Pompeo’s nomination in April. Haspel had previously been serving as deputy director.
So far, Sens. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, and John McCain, R-Arizona, are the only Republicans opposing Haspel’s nomination. McCain is not expected to be in Washington for the vote later this month as he battles an aggressive form of brain cancer.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Arizona, is the only other Republican who is publicly considering opposing Haspel — in part because of his respect for McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict.
“I’ve always shared McCain’s views on torture and looked up to him on this,” Flake told reporters last week.
A few other centrist Democrats have not indicated how they will vote on the CIA nominee. Even if they all oppose her and Flake joins the opposition, Haspel should have 50 votes for her confirmation.
Her nomination has renewed the fierce debate over torture from the previous decade, in which McCain led the fight to outlaw the techniques that the George W. Bush administration allowed CIA interrogators to use in so-called black sites around the world following the 9/11 attacks.
Haspel delivered an order from her superior to other agency officials to destroy videotapes of the interrogations, including the waterboarding of one of the top al-Qaida operatives.
Washington Post writers Karoun Demirjian and Shane Harris contributed to this report.
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