The US secretary of state may be a Trump favorite, but the Ukraine scandal appears to threaten Mike Pompeo’s ambitions for higher office.
With question after question, WSMV’s Nancy Amons grilled the increasingly uncomfortable secretary of state about the terrible week he’d been having—the resignation of a top lieutenant, one of the few career foreign service officers who had steadied Pompeo’s ship at state; President Donald Trump’s surprise decision last week to abandon the Kurdish allies who had helped defeat ISIS in Syria and leave them to face annihilation at the hands of a Turkish invasion; the controversy over the recall of the ambassador to Ukraine, who also that day was testifying on Capitol Hill about the alleged conspiracy theory-laden smear campaign that had ended her assignment in Kyiv early; and about the mysterious role of Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, and his mission this year to get Ukraine to investigate the Biden family, possibly in exchange for US military aid.
It probably wasn’t what Pompeo had expected while he was in Tennessee speaking to a Christian conference—the type of friendly audience Pompeo has increasingly sought. As he’s traveled the country over the last year, the secretary has made a point of engaging with local media (whose questions are generally friendlier) and, not coincidentally, the encounters have the potential to be more helpful to the political future Pompeo seems to be carving out for himself as Trump’s heir apparent.
During a spring swing through Iowa, he did four local radio interviews and more recently has been courting the local press in Kansas, his adopted home state, where he’s keeping open the possibility of running for US Senate next year. Yet given this fall’s momentous events—much of which involves a budding impeachment inquiry for Pompeo’s boss that has Pompeo himself in the middle of the scandal—the local TV news interview was far more challenging. The secretary of state, all but visibly seething, muttered non sequiturs, repeated vacuous talking points, and at one point told Amons it sounded like she was working for the Democratic National Committee. In fact, she was doing journalism, trying to pry the truth from one of the administration’s fiercest defenders.
Last month, as news of a whistle-blower from the intelligence community began to circulate in Washington, it would have been hard to find someone in the Trump orbit whose political future seemed brighter than Mike Pompeo’s. The 55-year-old former congressman from Kansas has deftly navigated the chaos atop the executive branch to position himself as the Trump administration’s unicorn—the almost mythic figure who has lasted inside the president’s inner circle. This is, after all, a government where senior officials come and go sometimes by the week. But Pompeo actually earned a promotion along the way, moving from CIA director to secretary of state.
Nearly three years into the administration, Pompeo effectively is the last man standing, having outlasted and vanquished all rivals for Trump’s ear on foreign policy, the president’s tireless, give-no-quarter chief crusader, a political pugilist in a role normally reserved for thoughtful diplomacy, a happy warrior Trump dispatched to tongue-lash European allies over China and Huawei, to scold Iran over its nuclear ambitions, to glad-hand with North Korea, to boost Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, to reassure Saudi Arabia that its relationship with the Trump administration would remain copacetic, despite the government’s alleged killing of US resident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and to clean up with Denmark in the wake of Trump’s aborted effort to purchase Greenland.
Pompeo learned along the way that there was only one way to survive under Trump: to be as enthusiastic about Trump as Trump himself. Or, as Pompeo summed up his daily job to me in one of our conversations, “you go execute and you do it with all the energy and heart and passion and integrity you can muster.” Anything less, after all, and one might face the ignominious end of his predecessor, Rex Tillerson—who was reportedly sitting on the toilet when he got a call informing him he was about to be fired by presidential tweet. As one former senior intelligence leader said when I mentioned Pompeo, shaking his head: “He’s made his deal with the devil.”
The deal he’d made, after all, was clear. Pompeo was a man in a hurry, standing uniquely astride the three critical strands of the modern GOP: the Kansas Koch brothers who have funded much of the party’s next generation; evangelical Christians, a group that has remained fiercely loyal to Trump; and Trump’s red-hat-wearing, red-meat-loving MAGA “America First” nationalist base. Before the Ukraine scandal engulfed Washington, it appeared that his loyal service to Trump had left Pompeo, perhaps better than anyone, in first position for the shadow primary to succeed Donald Trump in 2024 as heir apparent.
But when the details of the whistle-blower complaint emerged—that Trump, working with Giuliani, had been trying to pressure Ukraine to drum up dirt on the Bidens and also to chase a widely debunked conspiracy theory that Ukrainians, not Russians, hacked the 2016 election—Pompeo’s role in the controversy has grown with nearly every passing day.
After an initially ambiguous statement, the secretary of state finally admitted that he’d listened in real time to the now infamous July 25 telephone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, where the US president leaned on Zelensky to help Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr smear Hunter Biden. He’d heard, in real time, Trump utter the phrase “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” the smoking-gun utterance that caused such consternation inside the White House, intelligence community, and Justice Department as word spread of Trump’s conversation and tipped House Democrats over the edge to begin a formal impeachment inquiry.
Damning text messages exchanged by two State Department officials added fuel to the controversy, as did the congressional hearing about the State Department’s rushed recall of ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Pompeo’s decision not to speak out on behalf of those caught up in the scandal and not to defend the integrity of career foreign service officers was reported to have ultimately triggered the resignation this month of Michael McKinley, a State Department lifer whose appointment to Pompeo’s inner circle last year was initially seen inside the department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters as a hopeful sign.
Add in the fact that nearly all of Trump’s foreign policy goals that Pompeo has championed appear unfulfilled—from Iran, North Korea, and China to the unfolding debacle in Syria that Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were dispatched last week to calm—and the growing calls from the intelligentsia in Washington for Pompeo to resign, and it’s hard not to imagine that by the time he sat down to face Amons that Pompeo was wondering whether the implicit deal he’d made with Trump would lead him to the White House—or, like nearly all others who have served this president, his eventual embarrassing ouster?
There remains a certain elusiveness to Michael Richard Pompeo, a chameleon-like quality where the closer you look the less you understand. He is a business-savvy politician whose aw shucks, heartland American demeanor sits at odds with his elite university degrees. He is a Tea Partier who at the same time seems to be in on the joke, taking positions and appearing to affect outrage on command when they help advance him. He’s a straight-talking diplomat seemingly comfortable with the Orwellian doublespeak required to survive the Trump administration, particularly as he now takes positions as a cabinet secretary that Congressman Pompeo would once have lambasted. (Executive refusal to submit documents and witnesses to Congress and hampering aid to Ukraine’s defense come to mind.) But his latest role as Trump’s global crusader marks only the most recent reinvention for a man whose life has zigged and zagged ever since he arrived as a first-year plebe at West Point in 1982.
On their first day at the military academy, Brian Bulatao sat down on the bus next to a skinny 18-year-old Eagle Scout from California. “Do you know where they’re taking us?” Bulatao said. “No, I’ve never been here before,” Pompeo said. “Matter of fact, it’s my first time east of the Mississippi.” The two men quickly became friends, and eventually business partners. Later Pompeo would recruit Bulatao to top jobs at both the CIA and now the State Department.
West Point teaches its cadets to have relentless focus on the mission at hand. Pompeo, who graduated first in his class, seemed to embrace and embody that ethos more than most. “The experience at West Point had a huge, profound imprint on him—his sense of professionalism, his sense of ethics, his sense of mission clearly came from there,” says T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a military academy classmate and longtime friend who now serves as his counselor at the State Department—a role that has drawn him into the unfolding Ukraine scandal and impeachment inquiry.
Pompeo served five years in the US Army and was discharged as a captain before heading to Harvard Law School and from there to Washington, DC, where he worked as a corporate tax lawyer at the tony law firm Williams & Connolly. To all appearances, he wasn’t happy in the job and his marriage was stressed. Which may explain why he was receptive when some fellow West Point alums suggested going into business together. Pompeo divorced his first wife in 1997 and started the next year as CEO of the group’s new Wichita, Kansas-based company Thayer Aerospace—named after one of the first superintendents of West Point—where they assembled a small aerospace engineering empire by acquiring small firms around the prairie state, which has long had a strong presence of aerospace companies like Cessna and LearJet.
Between the daily briefings, weekly lunches, and extended overseas summits, no member of the cabinet appears to spend as much time with Trump as Pompeo.
The company never thrived, but it provided a key connection for Pompeo. Two of Thayer’s investors were the Wichita business titans and GOP financiers Charles and David Koch, then the co-owners of Koch Industries, an energy giant. Pompeo was an appealing soldier-scholar, an erudite and cultivated West Point intellectual, and in the years ahead they helped him at nearly every twist in his business and political career.
Indeed, while the Kochs have helped finance and boost numerous Republican politicians, few have been bolstered as directly as Pompeo, whose business career and modest wealth both stem heavily from Koch-backed ventures. (In a cabinet stocked with multiple multimillionaires, his financial disclosure forms show a net worth of a few hundred thousand dollars.)
Pompeo met his current wife, Susan Justice Mostrous, a Wichita native, while she worked as a banker and was closely involved in a deal in which Thayer Aerospace acquired one of her clients. “At our bank, like many Midwestern banks, it’s very relationship-driven,” she told me. “What struck me: He was serious and smart, even, I would say, very Kansan—just really easy, easy to be around.” She recalls that their first date was to Wichita’s Orpheum Theatre, a wearied community fixture Pompeo was helping raise funds to restore. They married in 2000 and Mike formally adopted Susan’s son Nicholas from a previous marriage.
When Pompeo left Thayer in 2006, he moved over to become president of an oil-field supply business that reportedly partnered with another Koch company in Brazil, served as a trustee of a Koch-backed think tank, and spoke at rallies organized by the Koch-founded Americans for Prosperity.
Pompeo ran for Congress in 2010 amid the Tea Party wave against incumbent Raj Goyle, a Democrat whose parents immigrated to the US from India. It was a nasty race that included a pro-Pompeo billboard urging Kansans to “Vote American.” He proudly touted the backing of KochPAC, saying he was “grateful” for the support since “the Koch companies are among the largest employers in the Fourth District, providing thousands of good jobs for people in south-central Kansas.” He was the nation’s top recipient of Koch money in his congressional race.
In Congress, Pompeo then carved out a name for himself as a fierce member of the Tea Party, helping to lead the Benghazi investigation against Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and becoming fast friends on Capitol Hill with another fiery junior congressman, Tom Cotton. The two men bonded over “investigative trips” to Europe as they teamed up to oppose President Barack Obama’s push for a nuclear deal with Iran. (As Cotton told me, “He believes—as I believe—that while Iran is not a great power like Russia or China, it has the potential be an even more destabilizing power than those countries because it’s really a revolutionary cause that’s hijacked the apparatus and the powers of the state.”)
Pompeo wasn’t originally a natural choice for Trump as CIA director. The famously thin-skinned president overlooked Pompeo’s early 2016 primary backing of Marco Rubio as well as comments where Pompeo warned that Trump would be an authoritarian president. Yet Vice President-elect Pence championed Pompeo to the president-elect, and when he and Trump met the week after the election, they hit it off immediately. As Trump has said, “I’ve always, right from the beginning, from day one, I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo.”
When Pompeo called his adopted son Nicholas in November 2016 to tell him he had been picked to be the new CIA director, the then 26-year-old thought he was joking. After all, for years over dinner table conversations Pompeo had said that his dream job would be as deputy director of the CIA, the intelligence agency’s second in command. “Dad, you overshot,” Nicholas teased, when he heard his dad had gotten the top spy post instead.
Confirmed to head the spy agency just three days after the inauguration, Pompeo began in the Trump administration delivering the President’s Daily Brief, the highly classified Oval Office intelligence report. Until the mid-2000s that task had traditionally belonged to the CIA director, but starting in 2005 the responsibility was handed over to the newly created post of the Director of National Intelligence. Yet when former Indiana senator Dan Coats became DNI, Pompeo didn’t yield the PDB and continued accompanying Coats to the Oval Office—seeming to understand that in the daily circus of the West Wing, such face time with the president was the coin of the realm.
As CIA director, Pompeo was welcomed by a workforce that felt battered by the reorganization begun by his predecessor, John Brennan, and they celebrated his selection of career officer Gina Haspel as deputy director (although her eventual Senate confirmation was dogged by 9/11-era charges of overseeing torture). Inside the Langley, Virginia, headquarters, Pompeo helped reorient the agency from 15 years of prioritizing counterterrorism efforts back toward its roots of Great Power politics as the US confronted a newly aggressive Russia and a rising China. “He restored its central focus and mission on the collection of foreign intelligence,” Cotton says. “I think he’s reinvigorated the risk-taking culture at the CIA that has ebbed and flowed over time.”
Even as Pompeo and Trump developed a unique comfort level—the boisterous, barrel-chested Pompeo always ready, at a moment’s notice, to dash to the Oval Office for briefings—others inside the intelligence community were more wary. According to some intelligence officials, he developed a reputation for overpromising to the president, both in terms of operational capability and intelligence collection, and worried other senior administration officials by often appearing to step over the line of CIA’s traditional policy analysis role into advocating for specific policies. This was nowhere more evident than with Iran, where Pompeo pushed for Trump to cancel the nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. He was criticized for relying on a handful of advisers, and his wife ruffled feathers inside Langley, reportedly spending significant amounts of time inside the CIA director’s suite and helping manage his schedule.
Pompeo, though, appeared to know exactly what he was doing. He carefully toed the president’s line on Russia’s attack on the 2016 election and its hack of the Clinton campaign’s email—accepting that Russia attacked the election, but deflecting by saying that it didn’t affect the election’s outcome—twisting the intelligence community’s actual conclusion that the attack didn’t result in Russians changing votes by hacking election machinery.
While the White House burned through senior officials elsewhere, Pompeo’s star rose throughout the first year of the administration. That Pompeo was Trump’s next choice as secretary of state wasn’t all that surprising; Pompeo, in some ways, had already assumed the role of the country’s leading diplomat while still at the CIA. It was his shuttle diplomacy with Pyongyang that led to the historic first summit between Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
In announcing the appointment of Pompeo to be the top diplomat in the spring of 2018, Trump praised his “tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength.”
“It’s not lost on anybody who meets with him—he has a bold and courageous spirit and he’s a Christian conservative, in that order, and yet he’s got a smile on his face.”
Pompeo diagnosed his predecessor’s three main errors as he took over at Foggy Bottom: Tillerson had disrespected the foreign service, disregarded the “Blob,” as DC’s foreign policy establishment is known, and had clashed with the president. He set out to correct all three, placing telephone calls to leading foreign-policy voices, including his predecessors in the office. He had cordial calls with John Kerry, who spoke about climate change and the Iran deal, and with Hillary Clinton, who talked to him about the value of the building’s foreign-service experts. Pompeo in turn thanked Clinton, who he’d attacked for years over the Benghazi controversy, for her “noble service.” (According to a source close to Clinton, the remark “amused” the former secretary of state, showing all the attacks on her had been “a game.”)
Inside the building, the State Department greeted Pompeo with a mixture of relief and apprehension. He followed the same model he had as CIA director, promising to return the “swagger” to the nation’s diplomats, while cheering foreign-service veterans who had seen half of their senior ranks walk out the door under Tillerson. Pompeo also appointed trusted and well-liked career diplomats as top advisers, including Mike McKinley, as a senior adviser and quasi-chief of staff, and David Hale as State’s third-ranking official.
Most of all, he continued his strong relationship with Trump. Whereas secretaries of state traditionally view their role as America’s top diplomat, Pompeo seems to define his more as the president’s chief foreign-policy staffer, an adjunct of the White House rather than the head of a department with 75,000 employees. He often speaks to the president multiple times a day, and—unique among cabinet secretaries—his near-weekly lunches with the president appear like clockwork on the bare-bones White House calendar distributed in advance to press each week.
Indeed, between the PDB briefings, weekly lunches, and extended overseas summits, no member of the cabinet appears to spend as much time with Trump as Pompeo.
The president clearly appreciates Pompeo’s lack of drama and consistent public defense of the administration. “I argue with everyone,” Trump told New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi during a rollicking Oval Office interview a year ago, “except Pompeo.” As Trump told her, “I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo!”
Asked how he’s stayed in such good graces with the White House in an administration that burns through officials at Daytona 500-like speeds, Pompeo told me that he just understands his specific role. “I’ve been a leader and a follower all my life,” he says. “When you have a tank platoon, you have a company commander. When you run a business in Wichita, Kansas, you have a board of directors. When you work at a church, you work for the senior people of the church and the Lord.”
Usually, Pompeo’s department seems to go out of its way to walk on eggshells around Trump; it yanked a press freedom award from a Finnish journalist who criticized the president on Twitter. Pompeo himself carefully cultivates his own press image and has been reluctant to engage with reporters; the State Department has drastically curtailed what had been daily press briefings in prior administrations. Whereas Clinton made social media and what she called 21st-century diplomacy a key part of her vision at State, Pompeo doesn’t tweet personally and his @SecPompeo handle is filled only with formal anodyne tweets sure never to attract presidential attention, much less ire.
Like his appearance in Nashville earlier this month, Pompeo himself often is visibly uncomfortable—and sometimes downright surly—in interviews, approaching them more as verbal judo matches than opportunities to win friends and influence people. A December appearance on the couch at Fox & Friends, normally considered safe ground for Trump aides, grew tense after the hosts gently pressed him on Saudi Arabia’s alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi. In perhaps the most infamous incident with the press, Bloomberg reporter Nick Wadhams was reportedly banned from the secretary’s plane after writing that during his shuttle diplomacy with North Korea, Pompeo had foregone the elaborate breakfast prepared by his hosts to eat toast and processed cheese.
Pompeo seems to particularly bristle under tough questioning from female reporters. Just a few days before sitting with Nashville’s Nancy Amons, he similarly accused Judy Woodruff from PBS of, again, working for the Democratic National Committee. During an interview in March on foreign policy and trade, he cut short a question from USA Today reporter Deirdre Shesgreen when he felt she had mischaracterized the administration’s policy: “No, not OK, but—Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Not OK, but. Not OK, but. These are the facts,” he said curtly, proceeding to mansplain agriculture policy. And it was a September 22 conversation with ABC’s Martha Raddatz where, through a careful evasion, he sought to leave the impression that he had no knowledge of the Ukraine whistle-blower call, only to admit days later that he’d been on the call himself.
His wariness with the press includes refusing to release routine information. In an administration that has seen multiple cabinet members accused of living large on the taxpayer dime—including Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, and Interior secretary Ryan Zinke—Pompeo raised eyebrows early in his tenure after moving into what’s known as Potomac Hill, a small military complex across the street from the State Department that includes three Georgian Revival homes typically used to house four-star Navy admirals. In the last decade, one of the homes has been regularly used by sitting defense secretaries, including Robert Gates and James Mattis, in part for security reasons.
When the unusual housing arrangement was confirmed last September, his spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, told reporters that the move would save about $400,000 a year in security costs for the Pompeos, who had previously lived in a modest rental home in Virginia. Ever since, though, the State Department has refused to release the rent Pompeo is supposed to be paying, even though the Pentagon released what Mattis had paid in the same complex.
That careful press management and his own political and policy contortions have afforded Pompeo a power rare in Trump’s Washington: longevity. He now has outlasted all of what Washington called the axis of adults, the original “grown-ups” who surrounded the president and tried to check Trump’s impulses on foreign and domestic policy—a group that included Defense Secretary James Mattis, Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and National Economic chair Gary Cohn, none of whom remain in the administration.
Pompeo refused in our interviews to name a single area where he disagreed with the president, large or small, and almost unique among Trump aides, there are never leaks about how Pompeo tried to talk the president out of a particular controversial action (as often happened with former White House chief of staff John Kelly), questioned the president’s intelligence behind his back (like predecessor Tillerson, who reportedly called the president “a moron”), or failed to carry out a potentially illegal or fraught presidential directive (like former White House aides Don McGahn or Gary Cohn). Whatever personal moral compass Pompeo may possess, he has apparently not yet met the line in the administration he’s unwilling to cross, as Defense secretary James Mattis did last year when he resigned in the face of the president’s desire to pull out of Syria.
Like Trump himself, Pompeo seems to evince few core beliefs—his ideology guided primarily by hawkish views overseas and his commitment to evangelical policy goals like restricting abortion. Along the way, he has enthusiastically embraced his role as a defender of Trump’s worst foreign-policy instincts, observers say, pointing to the smiling, jovial photos Pompeo has posed for alongside authoritarian leaders like North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince just weeks after the CIA concluded that the regime murdered Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist.
Critics contend that Pompeo seems all too comfortable undermining the nation’s moral leadership abroad. It’s a role that can at times require special contortions to please his audience of one at the White House: After Trump brushed aside Kim’s role in the death of an American student, Otto Warmbier, Pompeo weathered a tough cross-examination on Capitol Hill that found him repeating almost robotically that Kim “is the leader of the country,” and refused to disagree with the president that the dictator himself was culpable for the abuse Warmbier faced in North Korea.
While Trump’s pattern with other advisers has become familiar—he gets excited about new faces, recruits them into the administration, then slowly loses interest and shoves them aside like a toddler’s new toy—Pompeo has seemingly had the opposite trajectory: He’s seemed to grow closer to the president as time passes.
Amid the chaos and leadership changes that have marked the Trump administration, Pompeo has neutered almost all other rivals for the president’s attention: DNI Dan Coats was sidelined, ousted, and hasn’t been replaced. (The post is now held by acting director Joseph Maguire, who stepped in just as the Ukraine whistle-blower case exploded.) Positions like UN ambassador have been downgraded in stature; and his most serious rival in the foreign-policy realm, National Security Advisor John Bolton, was either ignominiously fired or resigned, depending on who you believe. As Trump has shuffled officials, it’s often a Pompeo ally who emerges from the fray. Pompeo left behind his handpicked deputy, Gina Haspel, at CIA; his former West Point classmate Mark Esper is now the new defense secretary; and Pompeo’s preferred choice for the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, was chosen over the candidate Mattis had been grooming for the job.
Pompeo is serving now alongside the president’s third White House chief of staff, fourth national security advisor, his fifth defense secretary, and just hours after Pompeo’s interview in Nashville, Acting Homeland Security secretary Kevin McAleenan announced he too was departing, setting the stage for DHS’s own fifth leader of the Trump era. Of all those who entered the Trump administration in January 2017, beyond Trump’s own family, there are really just three influential policy players left: Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, immigration aide Stephen Miller, and Mike Pompeo.
“There are very few serious people left willing to work for this administration, particularly in a role that involves representing the US to the world,” says Tom Malinowski, now a New Jersey congressman who previously served as an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration. “It’s hard not to understand why people don’t want to be in those jobs, given how often [Trump] undercuts the people speaking on his behalf and the sheer boneheaded stupidity of much of what he says that they then have to defend to the world.”
Pompeo is the first to admit that he’s an unlikely candidate for the nation’s top cabinet secretary and diplomat. Speaking amid the ornate seventh floor of the State Department, adorned with oil paintings of his predecessors, he says: “I look at these pictures on the wall every day, and I think, ‘Oh my gosh. Madison, Monroe, Jefferson. Pompeo. Wow. Which of those doesn’t belong in that group?’”
It’s a more apt list, though, than he might have intended. All three of those other secretaries of state used the role as a springboard to the White House themselves, a job that—at least until recent weeks—increasingly seemed in Pompeo’s sights as he looks ahead to 2024, a path seemingly set to begin with a run for Kansas’s open US Senate seat next year.
Pompeo seems to particularly bristle under tough questioning from female reporters.
Pompeo’s life as secretary of state is carefully plotted, his days planned to the minute and fueled at all hours by Diet Coke. In military precision, he typically runs a few minutes early. The first time we spoke, he told aides to extend our interview by three minutes, then used precisely two minutes and 48 seconds of that additional time.
While he has gained brownie points for engaging internally with career foreign-service diplomats, Pompeo normally inhabits such a small world of aides that they fret over even telling banal stories about him lest they be identified easily. (My request for an example of his storied behind-the-scenes sense of humor resulted in two separate conference calls with multiple officials, and yielded no publishable anecdote.) The Pompeos socialize little in Washington; among other Trump administration figures, they spend the most time with Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin and his wife, Louise Linton, one of the few other cabinet officials to have stayed in Trump’s administration since the beginning.
Inside the State Department, Pompeo’s approach to the mission at hand has been to bring partisan politics into day-to-day diplomacy, seeming to castigate and reverse nearly every policy of Trump’s predecessors, from climate change and Iran to even the policy on South America. He often appears to go out of his way to score political points and denigrate the approach of the Obama administration. In interviews he has described his work on Hezbollah as “cleaning up for what the previous administration failed to do,” and the Trump administration’s support of Venezuela’s opposition leader as “precisely the opposite of the way that the Obama administration behaved” during the 2009 pro-democracy protests in Iran, known as the Green Movement.
Pompeo’s morale-boosting talk of “swagger” inside Foggy Bottom, meanwhile, rings more hollow nearly 18 months into his tenure—more image management than vision—after the president’s new budget called for axing nearly one dollar in four allocated to the diplomatic corps, a suggestion that met bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill. “Given what the world looks like right now, this approach seems detached from reality,” Representative Hal Rogers, the Republican from Kentucky and ranking member of the House subcommittee that oversees the State Department’s budget, told Pompeo.
Similarly, initial hopes that he’d bring the department back to its regular strength have not been borne out. Overall, just 73 percent of the department’s roles are filled, according to The Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service, including just half of its top roles, like undersecretary for public diplomacy. in addition, there are currently no nominees for assistant secretaries overseeing arms control, Europe and Eurasia, South Asia, nor the Western Hemisphere.
Controversies and investigations are also circling the vaunted “Mahogany Row” where Pompeo and the department’s top aides sit, particularly regarding what investigators and career officials say is an inappropriate, partisan environment created inside sections of the State Department. Brian Hook, who leads the Iran portfolio and is one of Pompeo’s closest advisers, is under investigation for engaging in politically motivated firings of State Department employees, and an assistant secretary is retiring next month following another inspector general’s investigation featuring “accusations against and harassment of career employees premised on claims that they were ‘disloyal’ based on their perceived political views”—allegations the assistant secretary denied. The head of Pompeo’s policy planning office, Kiron Skinner, another close aide, was forced out from the State Department this summer, reportedly after clashing with diplomats.
Even before the latest whistle-blower complaint about the US president and Ukraine, Pompeo himself was reportedly the subject of another whistle-blower complaint to Congress that he and his wife were abusing the privilege of his security detail, dispatching diplomatic security agents to pick up Chinese food and even their dog. According to CNN, one agent lamented they were treated like “Uber Eats with guns.” (The agent in charge of Pompeo’s detail has not confirmed or denied specific events, but told CNN: “At no point during my service did he or any member of his family ask me or any member of my team to act in any way that would be inconsistent with our professional obligation to protect the secretary 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”)
Until the Ukraine controversy, the secretary of state’s highest-profile turns on the world stage had come in two controversial speeches, the first a December 2018 address to European leaders in Brussels, the unofficial capital of the European Union, in which he blasted multilateralism and criticized the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Organization of American States, and the European Union itself—institutions carefully created and fostered for decades by previous secretaries of state—saying they no longer served their original purposes.
By contrast, he argued, Donald Trump’s foreign policy merely represented “common sense,” as he sought to bring balance back to global relationships that for too long been a one-way street. “He sees the world as it is, not as we wish it to be,” Pompeo told the leaders. “Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens—not to control them. America intends to lead—now and always.”
Coming just months after Trump himself called the European Union a “foe” during a trip to Europe, the speech shocked allies. Pompeo joked to an audience recently that as cold as the meeting room had been in Brussels before he gave his talk, it “was colder after my speech than before it.” As Malinowski says, sarcastically: “I don’t understand why people were so critical of it; very smart people labored for years in the Kremlin to write that speech, and they did a tremendous job.”
Then in January, Pompeo used a Middle East trip to give another controversial speech in Cairo about how wrong Barack Obama had been about the region and to push his own pet theme. Whereas Obama had used a speech of his own in Cairo in 2009 to trumpet a “new beginning” and to push for advances on issues like human rights, Pompeo repudiated the previous president’s hopes for a better Mideast, hammering Obama’s vision and attacking Iran’s regional aggression.
He announced that America had “rediscovered its voice” and that “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over.” Pompeo skipped past typical American entreaties in favor of human rights and was scheduled to meet with the head of the brutal Egyptian intelligence service. In such remarks, he echoed an outlook he described to me—the world isn’t a happy place.
Pompeo and Trump seem to share a genuine zero-sum view of the world, confirmed for the secretary when he was collecting intelligence at CIA. “I still look at the world exactly the same way. It’s a very difficult, mean, nasty place with people who want to do great harm to the United States of America,” he told me. “We have lots of folks who are prepared to work with us, but there is true evil, people who want to undermine the West. They want to take down capitalism, free-market institutions, liberty, human rights.”
It’s a worldview influenced, he says, by books like Bernard Lewis’ Islam and the West, retracing the history of wars and peaceful interactions between Muslims and Europeans; The City of God, Saint Augustine’s fifth-century meditation on evil, free will, and original sin; and Frederich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom about the dangers of socialism.
He’s spoken about how his role at State is to tell a “realistic view” of the world. “I’ve continued to deliver tough messages that recognize a set of basic facts about the way the world is, because we can’t achieve good policy unless we recognize the reality of what’s going on on the ground,” Pompeo told the audience at a Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday. “There’s no shortage of truth to be told.”
His dark and pessimistic worldview is one reason that the former Army guy seems at times an odd fit for the nuanced world of diplomacy; Pompeo’s clearly more comfortable in the rigid operations-focused realm of the military, and will sometimes strike an off-key tone in the more dulcet parts of the State Department. He referred to his “75,000 warriors” in one interview earlier this year, a phrase that makes diplomats cringe. In an internal newsletter Pompeo said: “We take our direction from the commander in chief.”
Amid the musical chairs of Trump’s Washington, he’s oddly even seemed, at times, to assume the role of defense secretary. This spring, he traveled alone to the Pentagon’s Central Command in Florida for a briefing on Iran, an all but unprecedented solo trip for such a cabinet official. And following Bolton’s ouster as national security advisor, Pompeo’s name was briefly floated to take that position too—a rare “dual hat” that once belonged to Henry Kissinger in the Nixon administration.
Pompeo has been particularly aggressive against China and Iran. He spent much of the winter and spring shuttling among Western allies and encouraging them to avoid the products of Huawei, China’s telecommunication leader; Pompeo threatened Germany that if Huawei was incorporated into its 5G network, the US might curtail its intelligence-sharing relationship with the European nation, long the closest continental ally outside of the English-speaking alliance of the so-called Five Eyes nations: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the UK, along with the US. Similarly, US officials have reportedly warned Poland that if it allows Huawei into its network, the US might reconsider opening a permanent base in the country, a long-desired move that the Polish press have dubbed “Fort Trump.” (Last month, Poland signed an agreement with the US, promising to increase scrutiny of its 5G suppliers.)
Pompeo also seems especially closely aligned with the White House on Iran, where he and Bolton had teamed up to lead the administration’s confrontation. The Trump administration had been steadily increasing pressure on Tehran for a year with a “maximum pressure” campaign, including pulling out of the Iran deal; systematically striking the country’s power centers; moving to block its oil sales; leveling sanctions against more than 700 Iranian individuals, companies, aircraft, and vessels; and labeling the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terror group.
The moves caused a split with European allies, who had tried to keep Iran complying with the agreement. In June, when the US government pointed a finger at Iran for orchestrating attacks on oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, it was no surprise who was doing the pointing: Pompeo.
The June press conference was precisely the type of dramatic, seemingly high-stakes diplomatic theater where the Trump administration has made its mark—featuring bellicose statements and tweets, so-called historic summits, and splashy geopolitical firsts that capture public attention and “breaking news” headlines before fading amid the ever-onrushing, exhausting pace of news in the Trump era. Often, Pompeo stands as the public voice of the most visible Trumpian foreign-policy moves, whether it’s threatening Iran or negotiating for American prisoners in North Korea, the grin of the grip and grin, even as the results seem to be far less effective once the cameras turn elsewhere.
As critics see it, Trump’s mano a mano approach is falling flat. Tensions with Iran, for one, remain high, and the country has announced it has begun enriching nuclear material past the limits set by the deal from which the Trump administration walked away. Wendy Sherman, who headed the State Department’s Iran talks during the Obama administration, says the path pursued by Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo over the last year has only increased the geopolitical instability in the Mideast. The Revolutionary Guard “is doing more, not less. There are more Americans in Evin Prison, not less. We’ve broken our relationship with Europe.”
Sherman adds that “the risk of war has gone up. If the objective is to get Iran to the table, why would they come? What’s the end goal and how to get there?”
Similarly, the high-profile North Korea summit with Kim Jong-un earlier this year collapsed so dramatically it led to rumors (since discounted) that Pompeo’s counterpart in the talks had been executed by the brutal dictator, and now the hermit kingdom is testing new missiles, as its nuclear weapons program continues unchecked.
Venezuela remains a mess; the Central American humanitarian crisis driving asylum seekers to the Texas border remains acute. Trump himself seems largely sidelined at gatherings like the G7 in France or the UN General Assembly. The ongoing—but perhaps currently paused—trade war with China has caused instability in the markets, and threatens to tip the world into a recession. And over the last two weeks, five years of careful work to defeat ISIS in and around Syria appear to have been undone.
Some of the work Pompeo says he’s most proud of is advancing Christianity around the world. An evangelical Christian himself, Pompeo has made religious freedom his personal quest at the State Department, pushing the theme in appearances overseas and convening in Washington the first-ever, so-called ministerial on the topic. “It’s the first freedom, in so many ways, enshrined in the [US Constitution’s] First Amendment, and in so many countries around the world, you have oppressed people—you have places where Muslims can’t practice, where Christians can’t practice their faith,” he told me. “I think it’s deeply consistent with the tradition of America’s protection of individual liberty to make sure the capacity to worship or not worship is protected everywhere we can possibly achieve that.”
“I still look at the world exactly the same way. It’s a very difficult, mean, nasty place with people who want to do great harm to the United States of America.”
Pompeo doesn’t shy from a uniquely aggressive faith, using apocalyptic rhetoric to define America’s fight against terrorism as an all-out clash between good and evil, between Islamic extremists and those who understand “that Jesus Christ is our savior, is truly the only solution for our world,” and he’s spoken as politics as “a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture.”
This spring, he recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the captured Golan Heights, a key boost to the Jewish state. He also held a private briefing for “faith-based” reporters and refused to release a transcript of his remarks, a dramatic departure from precedent. And during an interview with two reporters from the Christian Broadcasting Network, one asked: “Could it be that President Trump right now has been raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace?”
Pompeo responded: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”
Yet even amid such controversies, Pompeo seemed to be flying high politically within the administration—particularly given that as the summer unfolded, Bolton, his primary remaining rival, was sidelined and eventually driven out.
Then the Ukraine scandal hit—and Pompeo’s fingerprints appear to be all over both the initial conspiracy and the Trump administration’s attempts to stonewall congressional investigators. Pompeo has defended the president’s push to investigate the debunked conspiracy theories about Ukraine, even though the State Department’s own officials (not to mention a bipartisan Senate investigation) had rejected them as false, and he even served as a conduit for some of what congressional investigators have called Giuliani’s most “irrelevant” conspiracies, reportedly funneling documents collected by Trump’s personal lawyer to other State Department officials. “[State] told me they were going to investigate it,” Giuliani told CNN earlier this month, relating a call he said Pompeo made to him.
In a blustery letter at the start of October, Pompeo—who built his name recognition in Congress by attacking Hillary Clinton’s State Department amid the politically driven Benghazi investigation—told the House that he refused to allow congressional investigators to “bully” State Department officials into testifying about the Ukraine controversy. In the days since, though, some of those employees have made clear they’d rather cooperate. After the White House blocked Trump megadonor-turned-ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland from testifying, Sondland—whose text messages with State official Kurt Volker had seemed to lay bare the Trump-Giuliani arms-for-investigation deal at the heart of the scandal—issued a statement through his attorney, saying he’d love to testify. When he did last week, he said he was acting at all times with the blessing of Trump and Pompeo. “My boss Secretary Pompeo was very supportive of our Ukraine strategy,” he told Congress.
For many foreign-policy players, the events of this month appear to be a final straw—both the Trump administration’s chaotic abandonment of the Kurds who fought on America’s behalf in the war on ISIS and the sacrifice of career foreign-service officials like Yovanovitch apparently to aid Trump’s personal political goals. “I salute Ambassador Masha Yovanovitch’s integrity and grit under fire,” former ambassador David Pearce tweeted. “Her example is the stuff that will inspire her Foreign Service colleagues, not slogans about swagger.”
Bill Burns, a career foreign-service officer who served as the Obama administration’s deputy secretary of state, wrote recently: “In my three and a half decades as a US Foreign Service officer, proudly serving five presidents and 10 secretaries of state from both parties, I’ve never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging, to both the State Department as an institution and our international influence, as the one now underway.”
In the House, the senior member of Illinois’ GOP delegation, Representative John Shimkus, said he no longer supported the president, becoming the highest-profile member of the party to break ranks after Trump’s decision on Syria. “I’m heartbroken,” Shimkus told KMOX. “In fact, I called my chief of staff in DC, I said pull my name off the ‘I support Donald Trump’ list. I mean, this was just, we have just stabbed our allies in the back.” (So far, Shimkus has said he does not support Trump’s impeachment.)
Inside his own building, employees are beginning to speak out too. “I’ve run out of words to appropriately convey how horrified, dispirited, and disgusted we all are,” a State Department official told Vox earlier this month. “We have tens of thousands of people who work for State, most of whom aren’t even Americans, who show more loyalty to the US than [Pompeo]. He dishonors us all.”
Such anonymous comments were given a public face with the abrupt resignation of Pompeo’s top career foreign-service aide, Mike McKinley, and his testimony last week on the Hill reportedly painted a troubling picture of a politicized department where the president’s personal agenda was being pushed over the objections of nonpartisan, career officials. McKinley, who effectively had served as Pompeo’s chief of staff, told Congress last week he’d grown disillusioned by the secretary and particularly the partisan agenda in Ukraine.
“I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents,” McKinley said in his prepared testimony, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “I was convinced that this would also have a serious impact on Foreign Service morale and the integrity of our work overseas.”
The Ukraine storm seems unlikely to pass anytime soon. This week marks the second straight where State Department officials are testifying almost every day on Capitol Hill as part of the impeachment inquiry; some, like Yovanovitch, even testified over the administration’s objections.
Pompeo has been harder to pin down; he deflected questions about the impeachment inquiry from Politico aboard his plane while in the Middle East last week, and when he appeared on ABC News on Sunday, he also dodged questions about Ukraine. Reporters at the State Department have grumbled about what they see as a “lockdown” on Ukraine inquiries. At the Heritage Foundation event on Tuesday, he joked about how happy he was to see a friendly crowd—referencing Bob Dylan’s song “Shelter from the Storm.”
The Ukraine controversy threatens to derail what had been a carefully plotted year meant to position Pompeo as Trump’s potential heir. In early March Pompeo, just 55, went to Iowa, purportedly with the purpose of both encouraging young Iowans to consider the foreign service as a career and generally boosting Trump’s trade policies. But it was hard to escape the subtext of an ambitious man testing the waters in an early primary state.
It had the feel of a campaign trip. His whirlwind visit included a stop at a local Hy-Vee grocery store—a popular lunch spot for soldiers from the nearby headquarters of the Iowa National Guard. With no cameras present, the secretary of state and his wife, Susan, chowed down on mac-and-cheese burgers and chatted with others. Pompeo also met backstage at the high school with evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats—one of the kingmakers of Iowa GOP politics and the 2016 national cochair of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign. Vander Plaats tweeted out a picture of him sandwiched between the Pompeos.
The two men met again in the spring, when Vander Plaats visited Pompeo at the State Department. The evangelical leader tells me he’s been impressed at how the secretary has pushed religious freedom around the globe, citing actions like visiting a church recently inaugurated by Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi during his trip to Cairo in January. “I can spot someone who will be a quality candidate in the future,” Vander Plaats says. “It’s not lost on anybody who meets with him—he has a bold and courageous spirit and he’s a Christian conservative, in that order, and yet he’s got a smile on his face.”
Pompeo has said he hopes to stay in his current role past Trump’s re-election in 2020, but few believe that the door to the 2020 Kansas senate race is actually closed. He’s met with top GOP donors in recent weeks, gave a high-profile speech in Kansas in September, and is due in Kansas again on Thursday, with Ivanka Trump in tow, for an event in his adopted home state—his fourth trip there since March.
Susan Pompeo, for one, sounds very much like a candidate’s spouse as she raves about the glories of politics in their home state: “Campaigning in Kansas is, I think, a dream,” she told me. “It’s 4Hs, lots of rodeos, and lots of county fairs. It’s a blast. Too much diner pie.” The filing deadline for the election isn’t until spring 2020, meaning Pompeo could presumably enter at the last minute. In the meantime, the decision by former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (a polarizing candidate, to say the least) to jump into the race may encourage a “Draft Pompeo” movement.
For Pompeo, it would be an unusual trade. Senators usually leave that body to serve as secretary of state, as did Ed Muskie and John Kerry, not vice versa. “It’d be an unorthodox move to go from being the secretary of state to being senator, but Mike’s an unorthodox guy and these are unorthodox times,” Cotton says.
Susan Pompeo says she doesn’t know what’s next for the couple. “He’s never ever said to me ‘Boy, I’d like to be president,’ but he never said he wanted to be secretary of state,” she adds. In our interview before the latest round of Ukraine news broke, her husband, meanwhile, offered was decidedly demurred on his presidential ambitions. “Who knows?” he says. “I hope I still have 20 productive years left where I can continue to work and do well, but goodness knows what life will bring.”
Pompeo is an avid independent movie and theater buff, especially musicals and crossovers like La La Land. “He would see Les Miserables every day of the week,” his wife says, adding that the couple hopes to attend gatherings like Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival when his schedule someday calms down. Now, with Ukraine dominating the news and his State Department at the center of the impeachment inquiry, Pompeo may find that he has time for the film festival circuit sooner than expected.
All Rights Reserved for Garrett M. Graff