Despite high staff turnover and the tumultuous nature of President Donald Trump’s national security team during the past 33 months of his administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has outlasted his colleagues and mastered the art of advancing his agenda while forging internal alliances and keeping his boss happy. After the successive firings of Defense Secretary James Mattis in December 2018 and White House National Security Advisor John Bolton this month, there is no one equal in power to Pompeo in Washington now. However, there are questions about the extent of his influence on US foreign policy moving forward.
The Most Connected Official
From January 2017 until April 2018, Pompeo served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) before taking the helm at the State Department, after the firing of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The generals with important portfolios in Trump’s inner circle began to fall, one after the other: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster resigned in March 2018, while White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Mattis officially left in January 2019. Pompeo and Bolton began serving in the same month, April 2018, and the assumption was that their political alignment makes them natural allies. However, they soon began to clash, and Bolton’s confrontational style was juxtaposed to Pompeo’s skillful bureaucratic maneuvers.
As of today, Pompeo is the most connected official in Trump’s inner circle.
As of today, Pompeo is the most connected official in Trump’s inner circle. At the Pentagon, he has a former classmate from the US Military Academy in Mark Esper, who was sworn in as defense secretary in July. In June 2019, Pompeo attended meetings with the leadership of US Central Command and Special Operations Command, which are under the purview of the Defense Department. His influence remains deep at the CIA since his former subordinate, Gina Haspel, currently runs the agency and relies on her former boss to smooth the CIA’s complex relationship with Trump. Moreover, the ties between Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin grew strong recently as they both considered Bolton a foe. This alliance was evident in their joint appearance at the White House on the day Bolton left his job. Pompeo did not hold back in criticizing Bolton and noted that Trump “should have people that he trusts and values and whose efforts and judgments benefit him in delivering American foreign policy.” Mnuchin also reiterated that “The President’s view of the Iraq War and Ambassador Bolton’s was [sic] very different. And the President has made that clear.” This is while he noted that he and Pompeo are “completely aligned on our maximum pressure campaign” against Iran.
Pompeo also stayed away from portfolios handled by Trump’s son-in-law and advisor Jared Kushner, most notably the Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. While the US secretary of state subtly criticized the “deal of the century” in carefully crafted closed-door remarks, he left Kushner and his team to handle an issue that traditionally was a primary portfolio in Foggy Bottom. Even though the State Department’s special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, has cultivated ties with Kushner and previously took the lead on Iran policy, Pompeo gradually succeeded in eclipsing Hook and claiming his own share of US policy toward Iran.
Pompeo’s strongest asset remains his strong bond with Vice President Mike Pence, with whom he shares an evangelical background and the same biblical view of foreign policy
Since joining the State Department, Pompeo has also placed his own team in key foreign policy positions, which included persuading Trump to accept the appointment of a hawk like Elliott Abrams as special envoy for Venezuela. When the situation became tense regarding the ouster of Nicolás Maduro from the presidency in Caracas, Pompeo reined in Abrams and dialed down US policy in Venezuela to avoid getting on Trump’s bad side. Pompeo also brought other rather hawkish US experts from the Washington Institute, such as James Jeffrey and David Schenker, into key positions on the Middle East.
However, Pompeo’s strongest asset remains his strong bond with Vice President Mike Pence. Both men have an evangelical background and share the same biblical view of foreign policy, and they often speak together at events in Washington and beyond. On September 8, when Bolton or his staff allegedly leaked to the media that Pence and Bolton were both against Trump’s idea of having Taliban leaders at Camp David, this angered the vice president and reportedly spurred Trump’s decision to fire Bolton.
Pompeo versus O’Brien
The most crucial test of Pompeo’s influence was not only his tacit contribution to the ousting of Bolton but also his role in deciding Bolton’s successor—after all, this is a key position that functions as the gateway to the president regarding national security decisions. Brian Hook was a leading contender to replace Bolton, though administration officials reportedly warned that he would have similar views as his would-be predecessor. A report surfaced that exposed how the State Department’s inspector general recommended punitive measures against Hook for his role in politically motivated firings, and this might have influenced the decision not to appoint him as Bolton’s successor.
The most crucial test of Pompeo’s influence was not only his tacit contribution to the ousting of Bolton but also his role in deciding Bolton’s successor
Moreover, Pompeo has known the new White House national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, for years even before working together because the latter served most recently as the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs. Prior to that, he held low-key government positions in former President George W. Bush’s administration and a symbolic foreign policy advisor role in the 2012 presidential campaign to now Senator Mitt Romney.
In his book titled While America Slept, published in 2016, O’Brien offers traditional hawkish foreign policy views in the form of talking points criticizing former President Barack Obama, rather than having a coherent vision of the world. He describes Iran as “a sworn enemy of the United States. It is a revolutionary regime committed to changing the contours of the entire Middle East and destroying America’s key regional ally, Israel.” He was also critical of how US policy under Obama was talking to “enemies,” referring to the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
While O’Brien is a hawk on paper, he was not selected because of his foreign policy views but rather for his demeanor which, in contrast to Bolton, will make him a compliant national security advisor. O’Brien is expected to play a similar role to the passive posture of acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who mostly stood idly by as Pompeo and Bolton were clashing over style and substance. However, it is worth noting that Mulvaney reportedly defied Bolton and appointed an assistant to the president on national security, Rob Blair, to avoid going through Bolton.
While the appointment of O’Brien is a win for the secretary of state, it also means new dynamics will soon emerge and Pompeo might find himself once again battling for influence
O’Brien will most probably restore the interagency decision-making process that Bolton neglected, which will ease tensions inside the Trump Administration. But it is not clear if process will matter in the Trump White House. The president recently summarized the gist of what it means to be his national security advisor: “a lot of people want the job – it’s a great job. It’s great because it’s a lot of fun to work with Donald Trump. It’s very easy actually to work with me. You know why it’s easy? Because I make all the decisions. They don’t have to work.” However, while the appointment of O’Brien is a win for the secretary of state, it also means new dynamics will soon emerge and Pompeo might find himself once again battling for influence; indeed, Trump is known to be a master in feeding disputes among his advisors, thus fostering a variety of views in a “divide and conquer” management style.
Mike Pompeo Is Not Henry Kissinger
There was chatter that Pompeo could become both secretary of state and national security advisor, following in the footsteps of Henry Kissinger, in 1973-1975, when the latter served under President Richard Nixon. Others inflated Pompeo’s influence in the Trump Administration by comparing him to former Vice President Dick Cheney, which is not accurate given how Cheney expanded presidential authority leading to two US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Pompeo appeases Trump not only to preserve influence in the administration but also to advance his own ambitions to run for the US Senate’s Kansas seat—or for president after Trump leaves the White House.
Mike Pompeo is not Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump is not Richard Nixon. Pompeo is not advancing his own vision of the world and Trump is not the type who relegates his prerogatives to a subordinate. For now, at least and until Trump makes a change, Pompeo has emerged as the most potent advisor in Trump’s national security team. Both he and Pence are forging a shift in Washington’s focus from western to central Europe, which is challenging Russia. Both he and Mnuchin are not conceding to Iran; in fact, they are doubling down on the “maximum pressure” campaign until Tehran caves, despite the risks of profound regional tensions as a result.
One more reason why Pompeo is not like Kissinger is that the latter did not have political ambitions for elected office. While Pompeo as secretary of state stayed largely away from US domestic politics, his relations with the president (the two frequently meet over lunch at the White House) remained strong despite a video that resurfaced last month in which, in March 2016, he called Trump as “authoritarian” as Obama. Pompeo appeases Trump not only to preserve influence in the administration but also to advance his own ambitions to run for the US Senate’s Kansas seat—or for president after Trump leaves the White House.
Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) is reportedly lobbying Pompeo to run for the Kansas seat to secure the Republican majority next year. Last July, Pompeo also showed keen interest in a presidential run after Trump’s term ends: “America has given me an awful lot. And if I thought I could do a good turn, there’s nothing I wouldn’t consider doing for America.” So far, he has served in the military, Congress, and the executive branch; he is clearly predisposed to reach a higher office later in his career. Pompeo has until next June’s filling deadline to decide whether to run for the Kansas seat; his decision will largely depend on Trump’s chances in garnering a second term.
Increasing US media focus on Pompeo’s influence might backfire with a president who rarely likes to share the limelight with his advisors
Pompeo’s status among Republicans is growing as he stays out of politics and now dominates the Sunday morning talk shows, speaking on behalf of the Trump Administration on foreign policy. However, an increasing US media focus on Pompeo’s influence might backfire with a president who rarely likes to share the limelight with his advisors and has the capacity to switch from adoring to scolding them, as was the case with Mattis. Pompeo also has had his failures in delivering Trump’s foreign policy. He is the architect of the US attempt to build an international maritime security operation to deter Iran in the Gulf, which has not materialized yet. US policies toward Venezuela and Iran are running in circles with no clear strategy beyond applying pressure, given that Trump ruled out military intervention.
Pompeo, however, was able to tacitly thwart the president’s plan to rush a deal with North Korea, tied the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to an agreement with the Taliban, and made the US withdrawal from Syria contingent on an elusive US-Turkish agreement. Whenever Trump sought to withdraw from world affairs or rush a deal with a US foe, Pompeo managed to put a break without provoking or angering the president. Nevertheless, Pompeo’s influence is limited by both Trump’s mercurial character and the secretary of state’s career ambitions. His primary legacy might be in surviving the Trump Administration and preventing the president from executing his foreign policy instincts.