Mike Pompeo illustrated by Tim McDonagh.

The mystifying ascent of Mike Pompeo

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 world
June 18, 2018

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.

It is curious, then, that the foreign policy views that Pompeo expressed in speeches and chats with right-wing radio hosts before he entered government appear devoid of nuance or any sense of diplomatic awareness.

They ranged instead from standard conservative cant to the stuff of paranoia: the attractions of waterboarding, the importance of keeping Guantanamo Bay open, the threat posed to the US by “sharia law.”

Perhaps it is a case of conveniently strong views, weakly held. But is this the man we want in charge of US foreign policy? One sobering answer is that the alternatives could well be much worse.

*** Less than two years ago, Pompeo was a middle-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, part of the Tea Party intake elected in 2010 with no purpose other than to make life miserable for Barack Obama. But Trump likes him—and believes in him, at least to the extent he believes in anyone other than himself. He appointed Pompeo first to run the CIA and then the State Department, with its 74,000 diplomats and foreign service officers, two-thirds of them posted overseas.

Until the moment Trump put him in charge, Pompeo’s only connection with the State Department and the art of diplomacy was that he had attacked them both. He was a member of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, a body that spent almost three years and upwards of $7m trying to prove that, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton had caused the deaths of her own staff—four of whom were killed by terrorists at a Libyan consulate in September 2012.

Pompeo was one of the supposedly star interrogators during these committee hearings, and Clinton danced rings around him. While most of his colleagues got the message and issued an 800-page report in which they grudgingly cleared her of all charges, Pompeo instead drafted a 50-page supplement of “additional views,” a farrago of warmed-over insinuations and outright falsehoods, whose net effect was to demoralise “diplomats on the front lines,” as the journal Foreign Policy noted. This turned out to be the first step in a major dismantling of the State Department. Trump’s first Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, an indifferent negotiator but zealous “reorg” man, left important jobs vacant, which led to an exodus of senior diplomats. “Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service!” Trump tweeted when he sacked him via social media in March.

And so Pompeo, yesterday’s wrecking ball of America’s foreign service, was charged with putting the pieces back together again. The Senate confirmed his appointment as Secretary of State on 26th April. Forty minutes after his confirmation, he was at Andrews Air Force Base “boarding the plane to carry him to Brussels,” the Washington Post reported, for the Nato meeting of foreign ministers. Even before the hapless Tillerson had received his fateful tweet, Pompeo was already rewriting policy under his nose with his secret Korean trips.

This might be funny in an In the Loop kind of way if the world were not so dark a place these days, somewhere between Weimar collapse and a new post-democratic age of militarised anarchy. There are many reasons to be gloomy about international relations: whether it is Russian agents smearing poison on a former spy’s home in Salisbury; Bashar al-Assad murdering his own citizens in suburban Damascus; or North Korea test-launching ballistic missiles. In the past, western democracies looked to America for military and diplomatic leadership. No longer. The uneasy feeling, planted with Trump’s victory and growing daily, is that he means to take America on its own course—the rest of the world be damned.

In this context, Pompeo’s ascendancy matters. It also mystifies. Other political animals, some better known, better connected, with deeper and longer histories of service to Trump than Pompeo, have been cast aside. Yet Pompeo, who didn’t even support Trump in the Republican primaries, glides ever-upward. Pure luck? In politics there’s no such thing. The variables are too many, and the ground constantly shifts. And that’s in normal times.

In the post-normal Trumpworld, there’s an eruption every day, sometimes more than one. But none of it has touched Pompeo. Somehow, he is able to appeal to Trump’s serious side, the tiny part of him that is aware of history and presidential legacy, without lecturing him or—crucially—ever seeming smarter than he is. As one close Pompeo-watcher, Curt Mills, a reporter at the National Interest, put it: “He’s the most formidable person operating at a high political level in America.”

*** Michael Richard Pompeo was raised in modest circumstances in southern California. During summer holidays he worked behind the counter at Baskin-Robbins, the ice cream franchise. During his testimony for his appointment as Secretary of State, he told the Senate committee, “I was employee of the month. Not once, but twice.” The self-effacing joke carried a serious message: Pompeo learned early that the customer is always right. This is the art of “managing up,” and he excels at it, always finding the biggest boss and serving him faithfully.

He went to West Point and finished first in his class. Afterwards he was briefly married before going into the Army, where he spent five years “patrolling the Berlin Wall,” as he has said, rising to the rank of Captain. He then attended Harvard Law, where he became—a year or two after Barack Obama—an editor of the famous Law Review. There is little record of any strong political leanings or affiliations from these times. But after two years with a prestigious Washington law firm, he made what now looks like a brilliantly calculated move. He went “home”—not to California, but to Kansas, where his mother grew up, in heartland America.

He started a business, Thayer Aerospace, in Wichita, with three West Point friends. It was a success and when Pompeo sold his interest in 2005, it had 500 employees. He and his second wife, Susan and their one child, a son, were active in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. In his religion at least, he appears to be consistent. Like Vice President Mike Pence, Pompeo is a cultural conservative, adamantly opposed to same-sex marriage. Also like Pence and other evangelicals, he seems happy to embrace the president in true Christian fellowship, despite Trump’s louche history and habits.

In Wichita the big bosses were the Koch brothers—entrepreneurs and Republican donors, who are staunchly pro-business, anti-tax, and reliably anti-regulation concerning healthcare, the environment and pretty well anything else. A Koch subsidiary invested “seed money” in Pompeo’s firm in 1998. A dozen years later, when the Kochs were the main national funders of the Tea Party Republican revolt, Pompeo entered politics, running for a seat in the House of Representatives. Coasting to victory, he reported for duty in Washington with a Koch-groomed lawyer as his chief of staff and within weeks had introduced bills that neatly coincided with the Kochs’ multibillion-dollar interests (in oil, petrochemicals, minerals, paper and more). In three terms, Pompeo became “the congressman from Koch” and the top all-time recipient of Koch Industries campaign contributions.

Yet Pompeo is not really a cash-on-the-barrel political hack. For one thing, he seems little interested in money. His total assets, listed as $400,000 in 2015, are small for a successful entrepreneur. They also make him a pauper in Trumpworld, with its Goldman Sachs billionaires. Pompeo’s currency is power and influence, which he accumulates and wields with unexpected finesse. He was appointed as CIA director by Trump in January 2017 and he flourished—employee of the month on the grand scale—grasping instantly that in this administration there is only one customer: Trump himself. To please him you must be continually within earshot, and in his sightlines, responding to his moods and soothing his ego. Instead of commuting to meetings with Trump from Langley, Virginia, where the CIA is situated near a highway clogged with Beltway traffic, Pompeo abandoned his own bureaucracy and parked himself in an office near the White House.

Pompeo had more access to Trump than almost anyone else and by late-2017 he was already being talked about as a possible future Secretary of State. He made himself a diligent informal publicist for Trump, regaling audiences with tales of the boss’s quick, receptive brain, his gift for cutting through the ponderous formalities to ask searching questions. By contrast, his doomed predecessor, Tillerson, unadvisedly referred to the president at a meeting of national security advisers as a “fucking moron.”

But even as he buttered up the boss, Pompeo served the CIA creditably. He was too political for some in the agency, but by most accounts he was effective. The art of managing up also means keeping the boss safely away. Trump, it’s worth remembering, came into office raging against the CIA for accumulated offenses, real and imagined. It was the CIA that had informed the Obama White House of Russia’s cyber-campaign of interference in the election in Trump’s favour. Trump’s reaction was to flip the allegation on its head and warn that the election was being rigged against him. Five months later, when the Christopher Steele dossier surfaced with its inventory of sordid allegations, Trump blamed the CIA and likened its staff to Nazis.

"In the post-normal Trumpworld, there's an eruption every day. But none of it has touched Pompeo"

The CIA was also involved in the administration’s first scandal, the dismissal of Michael Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Adviser, who had lied to the vice-president about his conversations with Russian officials. All this commenced on Pompeo’s watch, yet he—and his CIA—functioned well enough afterwards. Even as Pompeo parroted Trump’s talking points, he “used his close relationship with Trump to protect the spy agency from Trump’s wrath,” as the New Yorker’s Adam Entous has written.

This might not seem much, except in contrast with other departments—Justice, Education, the Environmental Protection Agency—which are being all but destroyed from within. Against all this, Pompeo seems gratifyingly sane. He has acted sensibly in other ways too. Ahead of the Senate hearings that would confirm him as Secretary of State, Pompeo called Hillary Clinton, of all people, to ask for her advice. She told him to replenish the State Department’s depleted ranks. He appears to have taken this counsel seriously. Even a sceptical Democrat, Chris Murphy of Connecticut, said he expects Pompeo “will work hard to restore morale at State and work to supplement, not atrophy, the diplomatic tools at the Secretary of State’s disposal.”

Pompeo handled his Senate hearings for the job of Secretary of State with aplomb, but also offered a disturbing glimpse of how the Republican mind works in the 21st century. The trouble isn’t only Trump and his caprices. It is also the long history of Republican opposition to anything that any Democrat says or does—opposition for its own sake. This principle has shaped Pompeo’s career. The Benghazi hearings were one example. Another was Obama’s bargain with Iran, in 2015, to limit its nuclear programme. Pompeo denounced it at the time and continued to do so throughout the election. “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” he said in November 2016, when he was being mentioned as a possible CIA head. But in his Secretary of State confirmation hearing, Pompeo astonished the room by saying he would like to “save the deal.” Then, in May, when Trump, to the dismay of US allies, said he was sticking to his campaign promise to rip up the deal, Pompeo fell back into line and supported the move. He offered no “Plan B” and made the evidence-free suggestion—nonplussing analysts everywhere—that Tehran was carrying out “assassination operations in the heart of Europe.”

*** Here then, is the contradiction within the Republican Party, where tribal passions must routinely override the mechanics of consistent policy.

Pompeo is not the sole practitioner of this fluid and capricious politics, with its weird blend of stiff-necked dogmatic belief and principle-free expediency—a kind of politics that comes close to nihilism. Strange as it will seem to anyone who remembers how things used to be done, this is diplomacy in the Washington of Trump. There are moments when diplomacy towards Trump’s ego might be the only diplomacy that counts.

Pompeo may have worked out how to “manage up,” but some Republicans are still deeply suspicious of him. In his confirmation hearings, his chief detractor was the Republican Rand Paul, a prickly libertarian and “peacenik,” who characterised Pompeo as a bloodthirsty stepchild of neoconservatives, the “people who loved the Iraq War so much that they want an Iran war next.” Paul may be the last pure libertarian ideologue in the Republican Party, and for weeks he held firm in his opposition to Pompeo’s appointment. But at the last minute—just before the committee vote—he crumbled after a phone call from Trump. Pompeo squeaked through.

*** Yet Paul may have sensed what others have, that in this world of hawks, Pompeo might act as a check on Bolton, a bellicose leftover from the Bush years who to this day maintains the second Iraq War, begun in 2003, was “a resounding success.” Throughout 2017, while Pompeo was building a solid record at the CIA, Bolton was auditioning for his new government job via Fox News, Trump’s favourite cable channel, aiming guided missiles of wisdom at the Commander in Chief.

Bolton’s policy priorities were summarised by the defence writer Fred Kaplan: “launching a first strike on North Korea, scuttling the nuclear arms deal with Iran, and then bombing that country too… not as part of some ‘clever madman theory’ to bring Kim Jong Un and the mullahs of Tehran to the bargaining table, but rather because he simply wants to destroy them and America’s other enemies too.” Kaplan offered some advice: “It’s time to push the panic button.”

But right-wing militarism tends to melt once it touches reality. Trump and North Korea is a good example, as the blustering talk wilted into sensitive-guy hopes to “really start a process.” Pompeo—and with luck, Trump, too—aren’t so much war-mongers as war-threateners. Insofar as Pompeo, and Trump, too, have a consistent approach, it is best understood as the current heirs to a longstanding “fortress America” ideology, which sees adversaries and allies as belonging to the same non- or anti-American category. This is what gave us the isolationism of the pre-Second World War era and then the cold war “unilateralism” of military figures like General Curtis LeMay of the Strategic Air Command, who argued that the US could defend itself and its interests by amassing a fleet of globe-circling B-52 bombers loaded with hydrogen bombs.

This leads to a theory held by close Trump-watchers, including the New York Times’s White House reporter Maggie Haberman, who says that Trump, with a year as president behind him, feels newly-confident and emboldened. The Trump we saw in 2017, the argument goes, was, for all his peacock display, secretly intimidated by the office of the presidency. He wasn’t prepared for the tightly-plotted schedule, the protocol, the bewildering size of the executive branch, the alien air of grim majesty and solemn ministerial purpose, especially this last, which emanated from his minders, the White House “grownups”—regents to the 71-year-old child-savant king.

No longer. Trump has gone through a wave of sackings that indicates, not a loss of direction but rather a righting of his internal gyroscope. And he seems to have decided that he really is king of the hill, one who waves the bloody scalps of vanquished enemies and issues triumphant yelps in pre-dawn tweets heard round the world. Like every other slice of Trump Inc, the US government has become an extension of himself. His poll numbers may be among the lowest in history. But everyone else’s are worse. The object of reality television competitions, after all, is not so much to win as to survive.

Against this, Pompeo’s careerism may be his—and just possibly our—saving grace. Perhaps it is fanciful to hope that his loyalty lies not only with higher-ups, but also with the institutions that have treated him so well. His attitude towards those institutions is still opaque. State Department staff were encouraged when Pompeo ended the hiring freeze. He has since said only a few of the department’s vacancies will be filled by new recruits.

But some part of him may understand that it is not the customer but the nation who is the boss, though it is equally possible, as another Democrat worried, that Pompeo will never muster the nerve to “challenge the president in critical moments.” He has, however, shown a knack for soothing the boss at moments of high risk, and for rubbing along with him in a way that makes the president feel that he is in charge, rather than somebody with something to prove. With Trump, we have reached the point where the most crucial requirement for Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, is not that he enact the president’s vision and serve his will, but that he thwart his most dangerous impulses.