With ‘swagger,’ Pompeo navigates tightrope between Trump and world

Secretary has been rare Trump official to stay consistently in his good graces, loyally defending his boss’s decisions even after advocating other approaches behind the scenes

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2019. (AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the US Department of State in Washington, DC, on April 22, 2019. (AFP/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds)

WASHINGTON (AFP) — Brusque and resolute in public, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has succeeded in a task of utmost delicacy — pleasing President Donald Trump, even while being forced to mollify America’s often perturbed allies.

Pompeo took office on April 26 last year, immediately flying off to Europe and the Middle East as he vowed to give the State Department back its “swagger” after his hapless predecessor Rex Tillerson.

A full year on the job is no small milestone in the Trump administration, with the mogul-turned-president notoriously falling out with much of his original team — so much that Trump has since ridiculed Tillerson on Twitter as “dumb as a rock.”

Pompeo, who had first been CIA director, has been the rare Trump official to stay consistently in his good graces, loyally defending his capricious boss’s every decision both to the cameras and startled allies, even after advocating other approaches internally.

Then-US secretary of state Rex Tillerson speaks at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, March 6, 2018. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

While occasionally curt with reporters, more than once denouncing unwelcome questions as “ridiculous,” the 55-year-old former soldier and lawyer possesses an intellectual self-confidence that has kept him at the forefront and helped him build his own political capital as the Trump administration shifts US foreign policy sharply to the right.

An evangelical Christian, Pompeo has frequently highlighted his faith, starting a major speech on the Middle East in Cairo by explaining how he keeps the Bible open on his desk “to remind me of God and His Word and The Truth.”

And in a comment that drew wide attention, Pompeo, asked by an evangelical television network if Trump had been sent by God to defend Israel, said: “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible.”

‘Secretary for Iran and North Korea’

Every US secretary of state identifies priorities, but for Pompeo the focus has been especially stark, with some diplomats dubbing him the “secretary for Iran and North Korea.”

Pompeo flew four times to Pyongyang last year, turning once-soaring tensions into a diplomatic opening that saw two landmark summits between Trump and the authoritarian state’s young leader Kim Jong Un.

US President Donald Trump is flanked by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, as he speaks during a press conference after a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on July 12, 2018. (AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

There is no such outreach to Iran. Days after Pompeo took office, Trump pulled out of an international deal negotiated by his predecessor, Barack Obama, under which Iran substantially scaled back its nuclear program in return for promises of sanctions relief.

Pompeo laid out 12 demands which Iran was certain to reject and has steadily ramped up pressure, most recently demanding that all countries stop buying Iranian oil or risk sanctions themselves.

Neither policy has guaranteed success. North Korea last week called Pompeo “reckless” and demanded he be excluded from future talks after he apparently encouraged Trump, who has a professed sweet spot for Kim, to hold firm before a comprehensive agreement.

On Iran, Pompeo has hailed the country’s deep economic pain but the clerical regime shows no signs of budging, with even moderates increasingly questioning why Tehran negotiated with Washington.

Other Western powers still back the accord and a European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he had never seen trans-Atlantic relations so poor, even in the runup to the Iraq invasion.

“I think there is obviously the wish to put Iran to default, to make sure Iran will violate its nuclear commitment and then say to the world, ‘Iran is a threat!'” the diplomat said.

“It’s a rather cynical plan and an irresponsible plan.”

Partisan roots

Despite his elite education at West Point and Harvard Law, Pompeo emerged from obscurity as a businessman in Kansas when he was elected to Congress in the right-wing Tea Party wave of 2010.

In Washington, he ferociously attacked an earlier secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, for not preventing a deadly attack by Islamist extremists on the US consulate in Benghazi.

Then-Republican representative of Kansas Mike Pompeo listens as former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on October 22, 2015. (AFP/Saul Loeb)

His outspokenness put him on the conservative media circuit and brought him to the attention of Trump. But he has also become perhaps the most partisan and polarizing secretary of state in recent memory, with Pompeo openly deriding Obama in speeches and Democrats eager to hit back over what they saw as disrespectful treatment of Clinton.

Pompeo has nonetheless tried to woo the State Department, lifting a hiring freeze by Tillerson that had disheartened diplomats.

Brett Bruen, a former US diplomat who served as director of global engagement in the Obama White House, said that Pompeo’s promises initially boosted morale.

But while Tillerson tried to put a positive spin on Trump’s unpopular policies, Pompeo “just parades them out with the gusto and glee of a drill sergeant,” said Bruen, now president of the Global Situation Room consulting firm.

“He came in with talk of restoring State to its rightful place. Many of those promises have been revealed to be more swagger than substance,” Bruen said.

Pompeo’s frequent interviews and travels back to Kansas have fueled speculation he will return either to run for senator next year or governor in 2022 — and maybe lay the groundwork for a presidential run in 2024.

Asked recently in Kansas how long Trump will keep him on, Pompeo replied with a rare moment of levity: “I’m going to be there until he tweets me out of office.”

Most Popular
read more: