Trump nominates hawkish ally as new chief diplomat

Trump nominates hawkish ally as new chief diplomat
© Greg Nash

President TrumpDonald John TrumpEx-ethics chief calls on Trump to end 'monstrous' migrant policies Laura Bush blasts Trump migrant policy as 'cruel' and 'immoral' US denies report of coalition airstrike on Syria MORE’s decision to replace Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonNorth Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report North America wins 2026 bid to host World Cup after lobbying from Trump Trump, Tillerson pledged to ease travel ban to win World Cup bid MORE as secretary of State with CIA Director Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoEven without hostility, North Korea diplomacy means mistrust and verify North Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report Trump rattles Pentagon with Korea war games decision MORE puts a hawkish critic of the Iran nuclear deal on tap to be the top diplomat for the United States.

It also puts a former Republican lawmaker with deep ties on Capitol Hill, and one who has developed an increasingly close relationship with the president, in charge of the State Department, which could shift policy to the right while also giving Foggy Bottom more influence in the administration.

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Trump emphasized his closeness with Pompeo in comments to reporters Tuesday, while highlighting his relatively chilly relationship with Tillerson, with whom he clashed frequently. Trump and Tillerson disagreed over Trump’s move to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate change deal, his demands to end the Iran nuclear deal and other issues.

“We got along actually quite well, but we disagreed on things,” Trump told reporters. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So, we were not really thinking the same.”

“Mike Pompeo — we have a very similar thought process,” the president said.

Pompeo, who represented a Kansas district in the House from 2011 until 15 months ago, has become a close confidant of Trump while serving as CIA director. He travels frequently to the White House to brief Trump on national security.

The former congressman carved out a reputation as a fierce critic of the Iran nuclear deal, which he said he looked forward to rolling back following Trump’s election. Pompeo declared in a 2016 op-ed that the deal “virtually guaranteed that Iran will have the freedom to build an arsenal of nuclear weapons.”

That would put Pompeo at odds with Tillerson and Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump rattles Pentagon with Korea war games decision National Guard soldiers Trump sent to border are shoveling manure, changing flat tires: report Overnight Defense: Trump explains comments on Kim's human rights record | Mattis praises Trump-Kim summit | Afghan war nominee to face Senate panel MORE, who reportedly pressed Trump to keep the deal in place.

But it would align Pompeo with Trump, who sees the deal as deeply flawed. Trump waived sanctions on Tehran in January for what he said was the last time and pressed European partners to work with the United States to fix the deal’s “terrible flaws.” Trump is expected to withdraw from the agreement in May if changes are not made.

Jim Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation who served on Trump’s transition team, described Pompeo as a potential kindred spirit for Trump.

He said Pompeo is more willing to take “tactical risks” to accomplish U.S. foreign policy objectives, pointing to Trump’s recent decision to impose tariffs on steel and aluminum imports despite objections from Republicans.

“It does seem he’s more willing to poke the system and he’s increasingly more confident in doing that,” Carafano said.

“I don’t expect massive shifts in U.S. foreign policy,” he said. “But I think, tactically, we’re maybe in for a bit more of a wild ride.”

Tillerson’s ouster capped a brief but rocky tenure as secretary of State, during which he clashed with the Trump White House on several fronts, at one point reportedly calling the president a “moron” during a closed-door meeting with other officials.

Trump appeared to undercut Tillerson in June by endorsing the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar over terrorist funding, after Tillerson urged the four Arab nations to ease the action.

Trump also publicly chided Tillerson in October for “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to scale back Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Just last week, Trump agreed to talks with Kim over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, a move that was apparently made with little input from his secretary of State. 

Trump has nominated Gina Haspel, Pompeo’s current deputy, to replace him as CIA director.

Tillerson told reporters Tuesday afternoon that his official last day as secretary of State will be March 31. In the meantime, Tillerson will delegate all of his authorities to John Sullivan, his deputy, and work to ensure “a smooth and orderly transition.”

There is sense of relief among State Department employees over Tillerson’s departure, sources say.

“He didn’t make any friends in the State Department and he didn’t build any allies in the State Department,” said a former official who left the department under Tillerson’s leadership. “People feel like they have been under siege in the building.”

Pompeo will need to be confirmed by the full Senate. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee expects to hold a hearing on his nomination next month, Chairman Bob CorkerRobert (Bob) Phillips CorkerSanford: GOP lawmakers 'running for cover' over fear of Trump tweets Trump’s trusted diplomat faces daunting task with North Korea George Will says Trump doesn’t inspire ‘cult’ in GOP: ‘This is fear’ MORE (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday.

Pompeo will confront a host of challenges, the North Korean issue chief among them. He has repeatedly warned of Pyongyang’s growing nuclear ambitions, coming close to advocating for regime change in July.

“It would be a great thing to denuclearize the peninsula, to get those weapons off of that, but the thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds the control over them today,” Pompeo said during a discussion at the Aspen Security Forum.

Pompeo would also helm the State Department at a period of high tensions with Russia over Moscow’s interference in the presidential election.