Trump nominee Mike Pompeo pledges to rebuild State Department

WASHINGTON, April 12 (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State nominee Mike Pompeo promised on Thursday to rebuild the State Department that has been gutted by the departure of senior diplomats and has found itself sidelined in foreign policy decisions under the Trump administration.

A reorganization and hiring freeze initiated by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has left the rank and file demoralized, with vacancies in most of the jobs that are filled by political appointees.

Pompeo, director of the CIA, said he would work quickly in his new role to fill the gaps.

"This is critical to strengthening the finest diplomatic corps in the world, and America and the world needs us to be that," he said in his confirmation hearing at the Senate.

President Donald Trump nominated Pompeo to become the country's top diplomat on March 13 when he fired Tillerson. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, had a rocky relationship with Trump in just over a year in the job.

RELATED: A look at Mike Pompeo

The start of Pompeo's hearing was disrupted by half a dozen protesters chanting "No Pompeo, no more war" before they were led out by security officials.

Pompeo appeared emotional at the start of his testimony as he talked about his family and offered personal details about himself, such as his love of meatballs.

Trump developed a warm relationship with Pompeo during White House meetings over the first year of his presidency and believes the former Republican congressman shares more of his world view than Tillerson, who at times disagreed with the president.

"Good luck to Mike Pompeo during his Confirmation Hearing today. He will be a great Secretary of State!" the Republican president said on Twitter.

Senators have said they want to make sure that Pompeo will be able to stand up to Trump, and they pressed him on the issue.

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it was fair to question whether his relationship with Trump was "rooted in a candid, healthy and give-and-take dynamic."

"I know that you have developed a close relationship with the president and I believe that relationship could well serve you if you're confirmed as secretary of state. However, many strong voices have been terminated or resigned," Corker said.

Among the first issues Pompeo was pressed on was whether or not Trump had talked to him about the Russia investigation looking into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Pompeo acknowledged he had been interviewed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, whose federal probe includes looking into whether there was collusion with Moscow by Trump campaign aides, but he declined to discuss details.

U.S. intelligence agencies concluded last year that Russia interfered in the campaign in hopes of tilting the election in Trump's favor. Moscow has denied the charge and Trump has denied any collusion by his campaign.

Trump has been accused by Democrats and some of his fellow Republicans of being too soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin, but Pompeo has signaled he will take a tough line on Russia.

Pompeo, who is seen as more of a hard-liner than Tillerson on issues including the nuclear agreement with Iran that he strongly opposed, said he wants to work with U.S. allies to fix the deal.

"I want to fix this deal. That's the objective," he said, when pressed on whether the United States should withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers.

He denied that he had advocated for regime change in North Korea. (Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Lesley Wroughton Editing by Frances Kerry)