State Department North Korea envoy confirmed as deputy secretary of state

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to confirm Stephen Biegun as the next deputy secretary of state.

Biegun will take on the number two position at the State Department amid intense speculation about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s political ambitions. In numerous interviews, Pompeo has downplayed the prospect of a Senate bid, despite his frequent trips to his home state of Kansas this year and vocal support from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Should Pompeo decide to run and leave his post, Biegun would step in as the top US diplomat in an acting capacity.

The vote was 90-3. Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Ed Markey and Mazie Hirono — Democrats from New York, Massachusetts and Hawaii, respectively — voted against his confirmation.

Biegun will take over the role from John Sullivan, who is moving to Moscow after being confirmed as the top US envoy there.

Biegun will move into the assistant secretary role as the department continues to deal with the fallout of the House impeachment inquiry, which ensnared numerous State Department officials. At his confirmation hearing in late November, Biegun was peppered with questions about his support for State Department diplomats and his willingness to act independently of the administration and inform Congress of potential wrongdoings.

“Do we have your commitment that you will encourage the independent thoughts of our career diplomats as they perform their responsibilities around the world?” Biegun was asked by Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat.

“Within the processes of the executive branch and in support of policies promulgated by our leadership, you have my guarantee 100 percent,” Biegun said. “And again my words alone don’t need to be sufficient here. I have a reputation and experience I fall back upon, over 20 years.”

Biegun currently serves as the US special representative for North Korea, a role to which he was appointed in August 2018. According to the State Department, Biegun was traveling to Beijing Thursday following stops in Seoul and Tokyo.

A senior State Department official said at the time of his nomination that Biegun would keep his North Korea portfolio even if he was confirmed for the deputy role.

Biegun had wide support from former national security officials, including former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Defense secretaries Ash Carter and William Cohen, and former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough, according to statements of support released by the State Department.

Prior to joining the Trump administration, Biegun worked as vice president of international governmental relations for Ford Motor Company, according to his State Department biography. In addition to his private sector work, Biegun has served in a number of foreign policy and government roles, including as national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, as well as executive secretary of the National Security Council and chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.