Laugh if you’d like, but this writer isn’t confident the ambitions of the former secretary of State are a joking matter.
By Curt MILLS
There is a renewed push for President Pompeo.
It’s something I first reported for this magazine three springs ago. Now, as then, that push comes from at least Mike Pompeo, anyway. The former secretary left little doubt of that speaking last week in Iowa. “This feels like home,” Pompeo said to the Westside Conservative Club in suburban Des Moines. He then paused for a moment, seemingly fearing how canned he sounded, and then bounced back appropriately. “To me.”
The former secretary of State continued: “I’m from not too far down the road… you hit Wichita [Kansas].” Pompeo noted, to audience chuckles: “I see a lot of cameras in the back. [Is] there going to be some big announcement?” Pompeo answered: “But my announcement today is really about you,” to some audible audience groans.
Pompeo has seen himself as in striking distance of the Oval Office for some time. In 2018, the new secretary of State completed a remarkable two-year turnabout from ambitious, if aimless, backbencher—a Trump-skeptical member of the Congress who suddenly morphed into the new president’s consigliere.
Pompeo was a surprise choice for director of the Central Intelligence Agency. But then, many of Trump’s inaugural cabinet choices were surprises.
From a probably disingenuous dance with Mitt Romney, to the selection of the man who would actually become his secretary of State, Exxon honcho Rex Tillerson (who Trump met once before offering him the job), to the installation of James Mattis at the Pentagon, Trump’s first cabinet underscored the softest of soft underbellies in the former president’s political operation: personnel.
Importantly, but now forgotten, both Pompeo and Mattis were on the wishlist of NeverTrump godfather William Kristol to mount a conservative, independent run for president against the New York wheeler-dealer. It’s true; once upon a time, Pompeo’s relationship with Trump was limited, if not non-existent, beyond some self-interested niceties in the close of the campaign. They were most definitely not tight during the primary. The then-Congressman was an enthusiast and loyal surrogate for Marco Rubio—the 2016 model of the Florida senator, anyway.
But come draft day, Trump liked the cut of Pompeo’s jib. For a populist Trump is something of a credentialist snob, those around him concede. The president-elect thrilled at the willingness of the West Point valedictorian and Harvard Law Review alumnus to come aboard the pirate ship.
He sent him to Langley.
Where Pompeo didn’t stay long. He didn’t waste time—or an opportunity for facetime. Trump’s interest in the Presidential Daily Briefing (PDB) was passing, charitably, but when the president received it in those early days, then-Director Pompeo is said to have always made sure to apply the personal touch. He made the not considerably convenient trek from Virginia to hold court at the White House, and Trump got to know his spymaster perhaps even as much as Mike Pence, the president’s seemingly inexhaustibly loyal lieutenant at the bottom of the ticket.
And, certainly, Trump got to know his second “Mike P” far better than Secretary Tillerson. By fall 2017, Pompeo seemed to be outright licking his chops. He drew both subliminal and public contrast with Tillerson.
Tillerson had been installed at Foggy Bottom, for his part, but approached the job more as a management consultant than master diplomat. He pursued a vainglorious “redesign” of the State Department, which has since been mercifully junked. Pompeo made clear he didn’t have such picayune preoccupations.
Speaking at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neocon-friendly think tank that, like Pompeo, found themselves surprisingly happy campers in the Trump years, the CIA director assailed the micromanagement of his predecessor, John Brennan. Brennan, who went on to become an inveterate, if lunatic, anti-Trumper, had favored a “modernization effort” at the CIA. Sound familiar? It was hardly hopscotch to draw a comparison to Tillerson’s labored style. And Pompeo let Tillerson—that is, Brennan—have it.
“I think less about org charts than I do about mission,” Pompeo told the FDD crowd, in which I was included. “I’ve told our team this. I’ve asked everyone to say, ‘Do not print the org chart out!’” In a nod to Exxon, Pompeo said: “I mean look, the finest companies in the world are restructuring their team every day.” He continued: “Start with mission, not with org chart. The organization and the team will fill itself out if everyone’s focused on the mission.”
Process was for the rubes. Whether it was the Boy Scout’s “code of the West” that didn’t allow Tillerson to deny having called Trump “a moron,” or whether Trump was just in a hawkish mood—the early administration, lest it be forgotten, was defined by a fairly mad drive to tear up Barack Obama’s Iran deal, “fire and fury” with North Korea, and what by all rights looks like a greenlight for a regime change in Doha—or whether it was simply that Pompeo outmaneuvered Tillerson with tricks like these, it matters little now, because replace him the 45th president did.
In a little less than three years in the high command, Pompeo extinguished that Iran deal—by the looks of the early Biden administration, likely permanently. Unusual for a diplomat, he ran point on the most undaunted maneuver of the Trump presidency, an assassination of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leader, the legendary Qasem Soleimani. Pompeo deemed Soleimani, and many other leading members of the Iran apparatus, a terrorist—a designation Biden’s crew has not reversed. The U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, the normalization between Israel and several of the Sunni autocracies, is quite rightly viewed by Pompeo and administration alumni as a crowning achievement in an otherwise ruinous 2020.
But lest he be parodied as an unreconstructed neocon, Pompeo also showed he could play ball. Though the Pyongyang press was never a fan, and though Trump apostate John Bolton made clear the former CIA director was uneasy about it, Secretary Pompeo essentially did his duty as a loyal soldier in what became the 45th president’s glad-handing approach to North Korea. It was a strategy that, while pilloried, was nonetheless a half thaw, at the very worst a partial peeling off of a client state of Beijing’s, and by all appearances preferable to the fight night rhetoric currently coming out of Lloyd Austin’s Pentagon. Deploying the veteran viceroy Zalmay Khalilzad, Pompeo carried out Trump’s wishes to set the table for withdrawal from Afghanistan, an off ramp that’s still there for the taking if Biden is interested, which he is not.
Pompeo has also shown himself to be cleverer than his doubters are willing to concede. Pompeo is no foreign policy restrainer, or even a foreign policy Trumpist. He is to the hawkish right of the ex-president, and was even bold enough to employ former NeverTrumpers in the upper echelons of his State Department. Indeed, Bolton is probably right Pompeo would never have pursued North Korea policy, for instance, in the manner Trump did. But he has proven a master pitchman of picking and choosing the elements of the new zeitgeist he likes, and selling the new blend as a coherent continuation from past to future.
Case in point: Pompeo took a term, “principled realism,” favored by former Trump apparatchiks such as Michael Anton, who is a foreign policy moderate, and turbocharged it. He’s even had the good sense to ape the “endless wars” refrain bandied about by his old boss. “Endless wars are the direct result of weakness,” Pompeo said in the days after slaying Soleimani. Fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here, one might say.
As of now, Pompeo has something that he didn’t five years ago: a real record, hate or love it. He is no longer a meandering ex-businessman from Koch country, the uber-credentialed all-star who had perhaps underachieved, “the Benghazi guy” known only as a committeeman heckler of Hillary Clinton. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he now has the curriculum vitae to mount a credible campaign for the presidency, and man, does he know it.
When Pompeo spoke to the Westside Club last Friday, it was openly billed by C-SPAN as its kickoff to the 2024 election. Perhaps it’s the malaise of the Biden moment. The new president was asked himself last week if he will be running as an 81-year old in 2024, and likely out of machiavellian necessity, though possibly out of sheer boredom, he just said yes. Iowans relish their starting lineup status in America’s presidential circus, so perhaps they’re something of a highly-selected audience.
But apparently, they like Mike.
Despite Pompeo’s reputation as a sort of unnatural politician, the folks at Westside seemed kind of amped. Braving the primaveral morning cold in Iowa, a grey-haired audience rolled, as many Republican crowds do, as if COVID-19 was yesterday’s news. They had an eye toward the future…Mike Pompeo?
At a time of new culture war, Pompeo, who is now banned by the Chinese Communist Party from visiting that country, takes lessons learned abroad and applies them at home, weaving something of a grand narrative. And it is a narrative that is gaining currency.
“The greatest threats, of course, are that we get it wrong here at home,” Pompeo told the club. “Too many in the Democrat party don’t understand that, frankly, in a way… A woman in the United States Senate the other day said she would not vote for a nominee—she would not vote for a nominee, if they were white. That’s not who we are. That’s not the values we should be championing. And the Chinese Communist Party grabs that.” Pompeo noted the inanity on display in Anchorage earlier this month: “My successor’s counterpart talked about BLM. Think about that. You had the foreign minister, [Wang Yi] and Yang Jiechi talking about Black Lives Matter.” The duo, of course, elided the regime’s monstrous reputation in Africa, as well as its renewed taste for concentration camps.
Pompeo’s China hawkishness, like the hawkishness of many if not most in the GOP, lumps in Iran with the concern with Beijing. It’s an ideological sleight of hand that ignores the pesky reality that recent U.S. policy has served only to bolster Iran’s partnership with the Chinese. Unflinching U.S. demands on the internal structure of the world’s peripheral powers are hardly stripping Beijing of friends, quite the opposite. But Iran hawkishness would seem to be a commitment, not only of the Republican Party, but of President Biden. The choice then would appear to be between a political party comfortable with truly assailing the United States’s direct rival, a rival responsible for a global pandemic that shuttered the world, at minimum, and another party whose raison d’etre is stamping out bigotry, existent or not—sure enough, they say it exists when blaming Beijing for the bare minimum.
Pompeo is counting on such crude stakes.
The hydrogen bomb of the 2024 Republican field is Donald Trump. The blast radius if he runs will be considerable, possibly as successful a clearing of the field as Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, who contended only with a party radical (Bernie Sanders) and a nationally anonymous egomaniac (Martin O’Malley), and yet still almost lost her nomination. So, Trump may have to take some comers, and one could be Pompeo, who would reprise Mr. Kristol’s imagined role for him as a kind of establishment savior, albeit long after Kristol has denounced him. Tellingly, Pompeo was not on a recently spouted-off list of Republicans Trump favored as his heir, but the details of a possible broader rift between the two men are as yet unknown.
If Trump signals he’s in for sure, by next year Pompeo could look at a long-whispered run for Kansas governor in 2022, staying in the game and biding his time. But Trump is not likely to signal until the last minute, those around the president say, thus lording his clout over his frenemies in the Republican Party until as late as possible, and disrupting their plans. Add in the fact that Pompeo clearly wants to be president now, he will likely have to gamble, and pass on reigning in Topeka.
Pompeo’s path to power is, of course, more gilded if Trump doesn’t run. Trump’s run would presently seem about a coin-flip. If it’s tails for Trump, and heads for everyone else, the field would be mammoth. For instance, Pompeo apparently can’t even teach a foreign policy series at the Nixon Foundation without sharing the stage with another 2024 aspirant, former national security advisor Robert C. O’Brien.
But Pompeo would bank on the peculiarity of the primary system and a few, key defining characteristics.
First, he would sell himself as the peerless champion of Israel, and try to take the evangelical crown in Iowa, which has a closed caucus system, not a primary. Delusions that Pompeo is guided by anything other than power, let alone by the rapture, are the stuff of high-handed foreign columnists who view America as a safari.
But Pompeo’s evangelical bona fides, however cultivated, are the real deal.
Ted Cruz, who few thought at the outset would finish as decent as second-place overall, was advantaged in 2016 in such formats, that is, religious plains states’ caucuses. Pompeo has been laying the groundwork for this for some time. He delivered his Republican National Convention address (unprecedented for a sitting secretary of State) from Jerusalem (a foreign city, also unprecedented). Those in attendance at Westside said that Pompeo plugging the relocation of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was perhaps the morning’s most raucous applause line. Moving down the state map, Pompeo would try to capture South Carolina, and then possibly Florida, two states where his military bona fides and staunch support of Israel will matter, respectively.
And Pompeo would try to muscle those such as Senator Tom Cotton from the China lane. He would also likely raise gobs of money, then gird for a bloodbath, and finally, attempt to be the last man standing. Even in the social media influencer age, political parties don’t always anoint celebrities and forces of charisma. Just ask President Biden.
If nominated, critics would doubtless try to dredge up Pompeo’s curious use of government monies to finance his lavish “Madison dinners” while secretary. The American Conservative submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for Pompeo’s spending, and found notably only what is widely known: that Pompeo’s wife, Susan, is his right-hand woman. Pompeo was married and divorced once before, as a young man, but that’s the stuff of yesteryear as much as the fact that the former secretary grew up not in Kansas, but Orange County, California (if you listen closely to him, you can hear the faintest bit of surfer voice). Susan Pompeo is Mike Pompeo’s consigliere, wartime and peacetime; of that there can be little doubt.
Which makes the rest of his political entourage more barebones, and harder to report on. One former senior advisor said that they had never met before coming aboard the seventh floor of his State Department. In a line of work where relationships are power and loyalty is so often the game, that’s unusual.
A look at Pompeo’s top lieutenants at Foggy Bottom—the neoconservative historian Peter Berkowitz, the establishment Republican Mary Kissel, the notorious Elliot Abrams, even his retention of the Iran addict Brian Hook (a holdover from Tillerson)—shows a Wall Street Journal editorial page conservative. That’s concerning news for those who would remake the party. But unlike other rivals in this lane, such as the former U.N. envoy Nikki Haley, Pompeo is never going to denounce Donald Trump. He’s savvier than her.
Pompeo’s ascent would be depressing for many conservative reformers, but would also come at a time when conservatives, and even many not on the right, feel the stakes are civilization. Would anyone in this camp really flinch to vote for him over, perhaps, Kamala Harris? Pompeo’s “take me or leave me” style is gambling, perhaps presciently, that you’ll take him. For anyone who would seek to prevent this binary, it would appear time to take Pompeo as seriously as he takes himself.