When John McCain speaks, his fellow senators listen. Yet his call to reject Gina Haspel may not halt momentum for her bid to lead the CIA.
The Arizona Republican declared that Haspel’s “refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying” as he urged the defeat of President Donald Trump’s CIA nominee. As a decorated veteran who endured brutal interrogations as a prisoner of war, his moral authority has an undeniable hold on still-undecided senators.
But Haspel’s prospects for confirmation had already significantly brightened before McCain spoke out. Just hours earlier, she secured two critical swing votes from Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who were pleased with her performance at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.
In order to bring down her nomination, Haspel critics now have to keep other politically vulnerable red-state Democrats in the “no” camp and persuade one more Republican to join Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in opposition. The veteran CIA official has drawn resistance from most Democrats for her involvement in the harsh interrogation program of the George W. Bush era.
Among the crop of potential GOP opponents is Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a close friend of McCain’s.
“I’m glad he’s spoken up, and this is consistent with how he’s always felt on the subject,” Flake said Thursday. He added that he didn’t speak to McCain about Haspel during a recent visit with his state’s senior senator, who is absent from Washington while receiving cancer treatment.
Asked whether he would consider voting against Haspel as a proxy for McCain, who is unlikely to be able to return to the Capitol for the vote, Flake said: “I have my own franchise, but I certainly respect his voice on this and always have. I’ve always shared his views, so his voice is important.”
Both Collins and Manchin also acknowledged McCain’s outsized influence on the Senate — particularly on military and intelligence matters. Still, neither suggested that his entrance into the debate would change their position.
“His words always have a powerful impact, particularly given his experience in Vietnam,” Collins said. “Each senator has to make his or her own decision.”
Before his return to Arizona in December, McCain used his influence to rally opposition to Steven Bradbury, a Trump administration nominee who had authored memos that provided legal underpinning for the use of waterboarding and other means of torture against detained terrorist suspects. Though Bradbury ultimately won confirmation as general counsel of the Transportation Department, a personal call from McCain changed Manchin’s mind on the nomination.
Manchin, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, left little room for a similar turnabout on Haspel on Thursday even as he hailed McCain for “what he has done for our country.”
“We’re all very sensitive about that,” Manchin told reporters. “But I happen to see, in a deep dive, the things that gave me the confidence to vote for Gina. And I think she’s the right person for the job.”
Had McCain been well enough to return to Washington for the confirmation hearing, he would have been able to ask Haspel questions as an ex officio member of the committee.
Some in the Trump administration are dismissing McCain’s opposition. “It doesn’t matter, he’s dying anyway,” special assistant Kelly Sadler said at a White House communications meeting Thursday, according to a source in the room. Sadler’s comments were first reported by The Hill.
Sadler called Meghan McCain, the senator’s daughter, on Thursday to discuss the remarks but the call did not go well, according to a source familiar with the conversation.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), also on the intelligence panel, said there is “no way to be able to tell” if McCain’s comments on Haspel would affect the outcome in the Senate, where a final vote is expected as soon as this month.
“I wish he could have been here to be able to meet with her face to face,” Lankford said in an interview. He also criticized Democrats by noting the support they gave to John Brennan, former President Barack Obama’s CIA chief, despite his status as a senior spy agency official during the Bush-era interrogation program.
“I think there are a lot of people making much ado about something that has already been resolved and that they didn’t make about John Brennan,” Lankford said.
Haspel returned to the Senate Thursday for meetings with Ohio Republican Rob Portman as well as three still-undecided Democrats: Sens. Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota.
Another Democrat up for reelection whom Haspel supporters consider a potential “yes” vote, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, plans to meet with her next week but said in a brief Thursday interview that he “would use any piece of advice from Sen. McCain.”
The intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said that he would submit written questions to Haspel before making his decision on her nomination.
“Listen, I have huge respect for Sen. McCain, but we all have to reach an independent judgment,” Warner told reporters.
Perhaps McCain’s closest friend in the Senate, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham, said Thursday that he and the Arizonan didn’t discuss Haspel during a visit earlier this week. “He knew where I was,” said Graham, who backs the CIA nominee.
Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) affirmed that he is still undecided but “reading a lot” about Haspel’s background. Similarly, Heitkamp said that she has “just started” reviewing classified material about Haspel that the CIA has made available. Among the few Republicans still seen as potentially swayable to vote “no,” beyond Flake, is Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah).
Flake wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday asking that all senators get access to another classified Haspel document, a Department of Justice report from a special prosecutor who declined in 2010 to charge CIA officials in connection with the destruction of 92 videotapes said to depict brutal detainee interrogations.
Haspel wrote the cable ordering the destruction of the tapes and has acknowledged that she supported that move — which was reportedly opposed by White House lawyers — but she said Wednesday that she would not make the same decision again.
“Experience is a good teacher, and the piece that was missing from the tapes was making sure that we had all the stakeholders’ concurrence,” Haspel told senators during her confirmation hearing. Haspel, who oversaw a secret CIA prison where detainees were waterboarded, also pledged that she would not restart the program if confirmed.
Members of the intelligence panel and party leadership are currently permitted to read the DOJ report on the tapes‘ destruction, but not other senators, according to Flake and a half-dozen Democrats who have made the same plea.
While Haspel continues to make the rounds in the Senate, opponents who align with McCain are left to hope that one of the chamber’s last larger-than-life figures might be able to make the difference.
“I don’t see, right now, her losing. I mean, I think she’ll have the votes,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who joined McCain in authoring a 2015 amendment that formally restricted CIA interrogations to the Army Field Manual and effectively banned torture. “But this is a very big consideration, and we are essentially then putting somebody in charge of the CIA that participated in the torture program, which is looked at very badly in terms of what American values are by people abroad.”
McCain is “the conscience of the Senate when it comes to this,” Feinstein said. “So we’ll see how many people listen to the conscience.”