Trump's top diplomat marks a year of 'swagger' at State

Trump's top diplomat marks a year of 'swagger' at State
© Kevin Dietsch for The Hill

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need Congress to approve Iran strikes in interview with The Hill | New sanctions hit Iran's supreme leader | Schumer seeks to delay defense bill amid Iran tensions | Esper's first day as acting Pentagon chief Pompeo meets with Saudi crown prince amid tensions with Iran Poll: 24 percent of voters want military action against Iran MORE cast his first year at Foggy Bottom as imbuing a formerly beleaguered department with “swagger” during a wide-ranging interview with The Hill on Monday.

“What I wanted to do is make sure and put diplomacy at the very front of what President TrumpDonald John TrumpNew EPA rule would expand Trump officials' powers to reject FOIA requests Democratic senator introduces bill to ban gun silencers Democrats: Ex-Commerce aide said Ross asked him to examine adding census citizenship question MORE was doing,” Pompeo said Monday in the live interview with The Hill’s editor-in-chief, Bob CusackRobert (Bob) CusackOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — Trump issues order to bring transparency to health care prices | Fight over billions in ObamaCare payments heads to Supreme Court Overnight Health Care: Key Trump drug pricing proposal takes step forward | Missouri Planned Parenthood clinic loses bid for license | 2020 Democrats to take part in Saturday forum on abortion rights Overnight Health Care: Court allows Trump abortion referral ban to take effect | GOP group launches M blitz against 'Medicare for All' | Star GOP lawyer raises constitutional concerns with surprise billing legislation MORE.

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“I spent an awful lot of time in this first year making sure that that was the case. We talked about swagger, about being prepared to have the confidence as an American diplomat to know that you represent the greatest nation in the history of civilization and that you had both the benefit of that and the responsibility that comes alongside that,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo, a former Republican congressman known for his hawkish foreign policy views, came in as secretary of State having already formed a bond with President Trump as a result of his stint leading the CIA, where he frequently briefed the president on intelligence assessments.

Former Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump targets Iran with new sanctions Leaked Trump transition vetting documents show numerous officials with 'red flags': Axios Bolton says Russia, China seeking to promote discord in Trump administration MORE was often out-of-step with Trump, and his tenure was marked by disagreements on Iran and other issues, as well as constant rumblings of low morale at State.

Pompeo vowed to restore the “swagger” at Foggy Bottom by filling key diplomatic roles and raising the department’s stature. He even rebranded the department as the “Department of Swagger” when he launched his Instagram account in September.

In a speech to employees on the exact date of his one-year anniversary Friday, Pompeo called his first year an “enormous success,” citing new senior leadership, the end of a hiring freeze and 59 Senate confirmations.

“I made a handful of commitments to you all,” Pompeo said Friday. “One was that we would, in fact, be the premier agency delivering on behalf of the president of the United States. We’ve made that happen. You have made that happen.”

Pompeo rarely breaks with the president publicly, a characteristic of his tenure that was on full display Monday.

Asked about touchy subjects such as special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Pompeo predicted Russia would still be meddling “in 2050.”

He dismissed the notion that the threat is somehow new or more severe following 2016 and described it as “much broader” — emanating from other nations such as Iran and China and impacting a variety of infrastructure.

“The fact that this town seemed shocked by the fact the Russians don’t care for us — in that case the Soviet Union — I find stunning,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo flatly declined to answer whether he agreed with Trump lawyer Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiPelosi hasn't returned calls to Facebook's Zuckerberg after edited video controversy: report Giuliani evokes Joseph McCarthy in criticism of Pelosi House Democrats considering probe into Giuliani's overseas political work: report MORE that there is “nothing wrong” with accepting Russian help during a presidential campaign, saying he would let Giuliani “speak for himself.”

And he repeated the White House’s talking points on Iran, Yemen and North Korea, among other issues.

In Yemen, the administration has been supporting a Saudi-led coalition fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels with U.S. military assistance including logistics, intelligence sharing and arms sales.

As the Senate prepares to vote on Trump’s veto of a resolution to end that support, Pompeo defended the U.S. role as “in America’s best interest” because of Houthi missile attacks against the airport in Riyadh.

The war powers resolution was propelled to passage in large part on lawmakers’ anger at the Saudis over their killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Pompeo sidestepped questions about Khashoggi, including whether the Saudi government ordered his killing, reiterating the Trump administration’s line that the investigation into his death is ongoing.

He also placed the blame for the Yemen war solely with Iran, saying it is “Iranian led” and that Tehran has “chosen to direct” the Houthis not to withdraw from the port of Hodeidah as agreed to last year.

Iran is known to provide weapons to the Houthis, but experts debate the extent of control it has over the rebels.

“The people who were happiest when that resolution passed were Qasem Soleimani and the ayatollah,” Pompeo said, referring to the commander of Iran’s Quds force. “There’s no doubt about that. When they see the United States shrink away from this challenge that puts United States citizens at risk, they think they’ve achieved a victory.”

Trump withdrew from the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal nearly one year ago, and last week Pompeo announced he would not renew waivers that allowed several foreign governments to continue buying Iranian oil without facing U.S. sanctions.

On Monday, Pompeo brushed off concerns about roiling the global oil market by ending the waivers, citing Friday’s dip in price for global benchmark Brent crude. He vowed the United States would make sure markets are “adequately supplied” and said he was “confident” China losing its waiver wouldn’t affect trade negotiations with Beijing.

Meanwhile, negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear weapons have remained at a standstill since Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnTrump to travel to South Korea The Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck North Korea: Trump sent Kim letter of 'excellent content' MORE’s Hanoi summit ended without a deal.

Pompeo reiterated the administration’s talking point that progress was made in Hanoi because the United States and North Korea now have a “deeper understanding” of each other’s positions.

But he said he didn’t know whether there would be another meeting between Trump and Kim by this summer when asked about comments earlier this month that he was “confident” there will be a third summit.

Pompeo also denied — as have Trump and national security adviser John BoltonJohn Robert BoltonBolton presses Iran to withdraw forces from Syria, areas of conflict Bolton: Sanctions, other pressure will bring Iran to bargaining table Overnight Defense: Trump says he doesn't need Congress to approve Iran strikes in interview with The Hill | New sanctions hit Iran's supreme leader | Schumer seeks to delay defense bill amid Iran tensions | Esper's first day as acting Pentagon chief MORE — that the United States paid North Korea $2 million in medical bills for Otto Warmbier, the American student who died after being returned from detention in North Korea in a comatose state. On Sunday, Bolton confirmed the United States signed an agreement to pay, as first reported by The Washington Post, but said the bill was never paid.

“I think President Trump made clear at no time in his administration have we paid for any hostage to be released, and we have no intention of doing so,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo’s relationship with Trump has remained steady and even strengthened over the past two years, which is particularly remarkable for an administration that has witnessed seemingly unprecedented turnover in high-level national security roles since its infancy. Pompeo said Monday that he speaks with Trump “almost every day.”

Pompeo did not directly comment on whether he is more in sync with Trump than Tillerson was — but he implied as much.

“Look, a secretary of State has to know that he understands what the president wants,” Pompeo said Monday. “I talked to every living former secretary of State before I was confirmed, and to a person they said the only asset you have as you travel the world is the knowledge of your counterparts that you are speaking on behalf of the president, that you are in sync with the president.”

“To the extent you get out of sync with that leader,” he continued, “then you’re just out shooting the breeze rather than actually delivering what America's foreign policy and diplomatic objectives are.”