U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced confidence on Tuesday that once every "legal" vote was counted, it would lead to a "second Trump administration," appearing to reject Democrat Joe Biden's election victory over President Donald Trump.
But hours after withering criticism over his comments, Pompeo, a close ally and appointee of Trump, in a Fox News interview appeared to soften his tone.
"I am very confident that we will have a good transition, that we will make sure that whoever is in office on noon on January 20th has all the tools readily available so we don't skip a beat with the capacity to keep Americans safe," Pompeo said.
Earlier at a State Department briefing, he said: "There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration."
Those comments drew praise from Trump, who tweeted a video late on Tuesday of Pompeo's comments, saying: "That's why Mike was number one in his class at West Point!" referring to the U.S. Military Academy.
However, critics of Pompeo's statement called him "delusional" and his comments "reprehensible."
Trump's former national security adviser John Bolton told CNN, "I think it's delusional for Mike to say that, and I must say I think he's eviscerated his credibility internationally."
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California Congressman Mark Takano added, "Secretary Pompeo’s job is to call out authoritarian behavior abroad but his comments today made a mockery of our own democratic process. It's reprehensible to see Trump and his allies disrespect voters and our democracy with their words and actions."
Biden said earlier that nothing would stop the transfer of power in the U.S. government.
The former vice president secured more than the 270 votes in the Electoral College needed to take the presidency by winning Pennsylvania on Saturday.
But Trump and his allies insist "illegal" ballots may have been cast despite no evidence of mass voter fraud, which is extremely rare in U.S. elections.
The Republican president has so far refused to concede and is pursuing lawsuits in several states in a long-shot bid to hold on to power. State officials have said there were no significant irregularities in the Nov. 3 election
Pompeo did not make any comments in either set of remarks to suggest he recognized Biden as the president-elect.
Asked during the Fox News interview if he was being "serious" regarding his comments about a "second Trump administration," Pompeo did not say either way but did not repeat the phrase.
He spoke as leaders of other countries, including Washington's close allies the UK, France and Canada, have already congratulated Biden.
'BASELESS AND DANGEROUS ATTACKS'
Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said the State Department should begin preparing for Biden's transition now.
"Secretary Pompeo shouldn’t play along with baseless and dangerous attacks on the legitimacy of last week’s election," he said.
Richard Boucher, a retired diplomat who was the longest-serving State Department spokesman, said Pompeo’s comment about a second Trump administration could be passed off as a joke but also served to protect him from White House criticism.
Pompeo played down suggestions that a delayed transition could present a national security risk. "I was part of a transition on the other side. ... It didn't take as much time as some might be pretending that it's going to take," he told Fox News.
"I'm very confident that all the things that need to be done will be done in an appropriate way, that we will deliver that."
Asked if Trump's refusal to concede hampered State Department efforts to promote free and fair elections abroad, Pompeo declined to address the specific question but said: "This department cares deeply to make sure that elections around the world are safe and secure and free and fair."
In his first official travel since the election, Pompeo is due to go to France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia from Nov. 13 to 23. The leaders of some of those countries have already congratulated Biden.