Trump COVID-19 result raises pressure on Pompeo

President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis poses a critical test for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the State Department as they seek to project stability and strength to U.S. allies in final days before the presidential election.

Pompeo, who was on travel in Europe when the president announced he and first lady Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, made the decision to carry on his diplomatic trip in Croatia before returning to the U.S. as scheduled.

But a weeklong trip to Asia beginning on Sunday was postponed over the escalating concern over the president’s health. The secretary had earlier said his team are making decisions about traveling abroad on an “hour by hour basis.”

The State Department said on Saturday evening that Pompeo will travel to Tokyo, Japan from October 4 through 6, where he will meet with the foreign ministers of Australia, India, and Japan. 

The group, known informally as the “quad,” is expected to discuss the challenges of a nuclear North Korea and confronting China.

But trips to Mongolia and South Korea are being rescheduled.

As fourth in line for the presidency, Pompeo will maintain a close line to Washington on the president’s condition and will be a key voice to the international community on the stability of the U.S. government.

“This is when you need that consistent message,” said Kenneth Yalowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Belarus and Georgia in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“In a situation like this, the White House and the State Department in all likelihood come together, and I think everyone realizes the huge importance of this situation and I can’t conceive of a jumble of messages and a bunch of confusing signs.”

But Trump and the White House have rarely projected a clear and consistent message on any issue and the questions surrounding the president’s health is raising fears that adversaries will have an opportunity to exploit the current moment.

“We were already in a period, because of the election, that the country’s attention was so focused inward,” said Dan Shapiro, who served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Obama administration. “Now you compound that with a president being less than fully healthy, even in some scenarios incapacitated, and you realize that the health of the president’s safety is a national security issue.”

Foreign leaders — including Russian President Vladimir Putin and a top official in China — have poured in messages wishing the president and first lady a speedy recovery.

Yet experts are warning that despite the public goodwill, the risks posed by these countries are becoming even more acute.

“With the President’s illness amid a divisive campaign, we should not discount the possibility that China will step up pressure on Taiwan or Russia seek to take advantage in Eastern Europe,” tweeted Nicholas Burns, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and a two-time former U.S. ambassador. “Important the U.S. signal to both that we are watching and remain fully capable.”

Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that the president’s diagnosis is likely to contribute to the political division in the country but will have little bearing on the institutions charged with protecting America’s security.

“We have a healthy secretary of Defense, healthy secretary of State, an entire bureaucracy and cabinet that continues to function as it was functioning before this announcement was made public,” he said.

“In terms of vulnerability, I don’t see it from an intelligence or military perspective, it’s more the continuation of the political chaos that we have seen as a result of the virus.”

And Pompeo has signaled that he is moving ahead on addressing what the administration views as the most pressing national security challenge facing the U.S.: confronting China.

His travel this week, to Japan will give him a prominent platform to confront what he says are the threats posed by Beijing and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.

The task for diplomats on the frontlines abroad and communicating with foreign embassies in Washington D.C. are likely to be reinforcing messages of gratitude over their concern for the safety and wellbeing of the president and first lady, reassuring that America has excellent medical treatment for the first family and that systems are in place to protect the continuity of government in a moment of crisis.

“For diplomats abroad the job at times like these is usually limited to reassuring host governments abroad that we have a constitutional process that assures orderly governance,” said Ronald Neumann, President of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Yalowitz, who served as U.S. ambassador to Georgia during the tumultuous 2000 election and weeks-long Florida recount that eventually awarded George W. Bush the presidency, said he was in near-daily contact with Georgian officials and the public reassuring them of the strength of American institutions.

“It was a good example to me of how, at a time of concern, friends who are really worried about the stability of the U.S. government, that you have to be upfront, you have to know your country, you have to know what’s going on and you have to be able to explain to your [host] what exactly is going on.”

It will be a challenging task given that international opinion of the U.S. has plummeted since Trump took office and plunged to new depths in response to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center that measure public opinion stretching back 20 years. 

Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis is likely to further reinforce the retreat of American authority on the world stage. In over a dozen nations surveyed – in Europe, Asia and Australia – public confidence in Trump was lower than confidence in Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“Our standing in the world, clearly, is less,” Yalowitz said. “But the fact that the United States has the world’s largest economy, the largest military and we still project the most influence in the world, those are objective factors that everyone worldwide understands.”

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Joe Biden Melania Trump Mike Pompeo Vladimir Putin
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video