Pompeo off to fast start as Trump’s top diplomat
Mike Pompeo has hit the ground running in his first weeks atop the State Department, drawing a stark contrast with his predecessor by taking a decidedly public approach to his role as chief diplomat.
Pompeo has already notched early wins for President Trump’s foreign policy agenda, positioning himself as a key player in next month’s historic summit with North Korea.
He has also pledged to restore morale among State employees, who were deeply unhappy with the way Rex Tillerson managed the department.
The early moves from Pompeo have impressed even those who did not support his nomination for secretary of State.
“To the extent that he says he’s going to be supportive of a strong, robust State Department and of the State Department’s structure, to the extent that he’s had — we applaud him getting the Americans back from North Korea,” Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told The Hill. “Those are all positive things.”
Pompeo, who was formerly Trump’s CIA director, took over at State on April 26, immediately departing on a tour through the Middle East to raise alarm over what the administration views as a growing threat from Iran.
This week, Pompeo spent 13 hours in North Korea hammering out the agenda for Trump’s historic meeting with Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang’s leader. The summit is set to take place June 12 in Singapore.
He capped off the dramatic trip by returning to Washington with three American prisoners, including one who had been held since 2015 in North Korea.
The high-stakes missions indicate that Pompeo is more in sync with Trump that Tillerson ever was.
“What we have seen in the last week is this is foreign policy on Trump time,” said Jim Carafano, a foreign policy expert at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation who worked on Trump’s landing team at State. “That’s what Pompeo is paid to do and, man, that’s what he’s doing.”
Pompeo has also interrupted his travels to connect with career civil servants and foreign affairs officers within the State Department. Addressing employees at the start of May, he promised to restore the department’s “swagger” and roam away from the department’s seventh floor — the spot where the secretary and his immediate staff are located, and where Tillerson is said to have spent most of his time.
“The United States diplomatic corps needs to be in every corner, every stretch of the world, executing missions on behalf of this country, and it is my humble, noble undertaking to help you achieve that,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo’s remarks followed months of staff exits and rumblings of declining morale under the leadership of Tillerson, who kept a distance from rank-and-file employees and the press and kept his decisionmaking confined to a small group of advisers.
“There is a more positive buzz around the corridors since Tillerson left,” said one former official who keeps in touch with current employees.
Pompeo has also reversed one of Tillerson’s more unpopular policies, which was a hiring freeze on spouses of employees at overseas embassies.
“I think he’s doing many of the right things at the personnel level,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department official during the Obama administration who worked on sanctions policy.
Many observe that Pompeo entered the department with a few advantages that allowed him transition easily into the role.
Once a member of Congress, Pompeo came into the administration with an intimate understanding of the workings of government — something his predecessor lacked.
He also led the CIA for the first year of the Trump administration, which afforded him a deeper understanding of foreign operations as well as the opportunity to forge a relationship with the president. Pompeo used to deliver many of Trump’s daily intelligence briefings.
Still, Pompeo’s job will be rife with challenges. He will have to answer to Congress about his plans for the department and broader foreign policy decisions, where he will inevitably encounter scrutiny of the president’s agenda. Tillerson frequently ran into criticism from lawmakers for his controversial reorganization plans and the administration’s push for steep budget cuts.
“I would hope that he would have more interaction with the Foreign Affairs Committee than Secretary Tillerson did,” said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who said he had not yet heard from the new secretary of State.
An aide to Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) confirmed that he and Pompeo spoke by phone shortly after he was nominated to lead State. The aide said Royce “was encouraged by the secretary’s comments about empowering our diplomats at his confirmation hearing and looks forward to working with him on pressing issues, including North Korea and Iran, in the months ahead.”
To his advantage, Pompeo has already built ties on Capitol Hill during his time representing Kansas in Congress and, more recently, appearing before lawmakers as CIA director.
Still, he will have difficulty trying to win over Democrats who opposed his nomination. Pompeo’s confirmation process was arduous, as he narrowly captured the votes needed to advance his nomination out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Many Democrats opposed Pompeo’s nomination over his past statements about Muslims and same-sex couples. Eventually, he was confirmed in a 57-42 vote.
“There’s a lot on the world stage that I want to see how he responds to,” said Menendez, who voted against Pompeo.
There are also lingering questions about how Pompeo’s historically hawkish foreign policy views will shape his work going forward. In March, Trump partially blamed his decision to remove Tillerson on disagreements over the Iran nuclear accord, of which the president and Pompeo have been highly critical.
Trump announced Wednesday that the U.S. would exit the deal, weeks after dispatching Pompeo to the Middle East to warn against Iran’s “destabilizing and malign activities.”
And while he has signaled a desire to bolster the State Department from within, Pompeo will face hurdles in managing a sprawling bureaucracy with a more public profile than the covert operations of the CIA.
Members of Congress, as well as current and former officials, are watching his moves closely to see how he will handle major diplomatic tests — beginning with the meeting over North Korea’s nuclear program.
“He’s already had some highly visible missions on behalf of the president,” said Anita McBride, who served in the White House and the State Department during the Reagan and Bush administrations. “I think it bodes pretty well so far, but like anything else, we need to watch and see.”