While others in the White House have fallen, Trump's foreign policy brain has quietly risen to greater and greater power. This is how he did it—and why it matters for the worldby Sam Tanenhaus / June 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The quiet tenacity of Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, was never so clear as during the dizzying reversals surrounding the US-North Korea summit. The historic meeting in Singapore on 12th June, which Trump claimed would yield a de-nuclearised North Korea, was announced by the US president in April. Then in May, Kim Jong Un granted “amnesty” to three Americans who had been detained in North Korea. Two weeks later, foreign journalists were invited to remote Punggye-ri, the country’s only known nuclear test site, to observe the demolition of buildings and tunnels—a deafening spectacle, though possibly just a stunt.
Then, on the train back to Pyongyang, the journalists learned that Trump had sent Kim a letter calling the whole thing off. “The Singapore summit, for the good of both parties, but to the detriment of the world, will not take place,” Trump wrote. “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”
Pompeo had set up the summit in two secret meetings with Kim and also secured the release of the American prisoners. It seemed that he had lost out in an internal struggle with John Bolton, the hawkish new National Security Adviser with a long history of urging military strikes against North Korea. But then, a week after Trump cancelled the meeting, Pompeo dined in New York with a North Korean envoy, its former top spy, Kim Yong Chol. The next day the envoy was in the Oval Office with a letter for Trump. Pompeo was in the room—Bolton was not—and the summit was back on. In the event, it took place without a hitch.
It was a typical Pompeo victory, achieved so blandly as to go almost unnoticed. And this is the reason for his success. In a different White House and a different time, Ronald Reagan kept a plaque on his desk on which was inscribed, “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he does not mind who gets the credit.” It was a variation of a sentiment that Harry Truman also expressed. Under Trump, the calculations are different. The credit always goes to one man, the boss, and the rest try to grab whatever is left over. Yet in this unpromising environment, Pompeo has prospered. He is a subtly effective facilitator with a steady compass. With each new hurricane, he calmly adjusts and stays on course.