By Robin Wright
President Trump and his next Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, are—for now—two peas in a policy pod. The outgoing Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, who learned that he had been fired only after Trump announced his departure in a tweet, clashed frequently with the President and lasted only fourteen months, although reports of his demise have been circulating for the past five. “Pompeo is not Tillerson—but he could be someday, if the President keeps undercutting his Secretary of State,” the former Ambassador Richard Boucher, a career diplomat who was the spokesman for three Secretaries of State, both Republican and Democratic, said.
The President and Pompeo, who is currently the director of the C.I.A. and must go through confirmation hearings before taking his new post, have clearly become chummy. Speaking from the White House South Portico, just minutes after Tillerson’s abrupt firing, Trump praised Pompeo volubly. “I respect his intellect,” he said. “I respect the process that we’ve all gone through together. We have a very good relationship, for whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is—why do people get along? I’ve always, right from the beginning, from day one, I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo.”
The relationship developed in the course of intelligence briefings that Pompeo delivered to the White House, which often gave him more access to the President than Tillerson had as Secretary of State. Pompeo—a former Tea Party congressman from Kansas, who attended Harvard Law School and West Point—has been such a fixture at the White House that some intelligence professionals at the C.I.A. have privately complained that they saw too little of him, compared with previous directors. Trump and Pompeo are also in synch in their hawkish views of America’s role in the world. Pompeo was a cavalry officer in the Army between 1986 and 1991. During the Cold War, he patrolled the Berlin Wall and served in the 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait after the Iraqi invasion.
“I don’t know if it’s a victory by the über-hawks, but it reflects a mind-set about how Trump sees the world. He relies on generals,” Boucher told me. “He’s looking for people who see every problem as a threat that needs to be dealt with by military force, rather than an issue that can be countered through diplomacy. There’s an over-all failure by this Administration to understand what diplomacy can do for the country—and the world.”
In public statements, Pompeo has taken positions identical to—and in some instances tougher than—the President’s on four pivotal issues: Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Jerusalem. On each, Tillerson tried to talk Trump down from irrational, impulsive, or controversial moves.
Differences over the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran may have been at the top of the list of disputes Trump had with Tillerson. “We disagreed on things,” Trump said. “When you look at the Iran deal, I think it’s terrible. I guess he thought it was O.K. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.” He added, “With Mike Pompeo, we have a very similar thought process. I think it’s going to go very well.”
While in Congress, Pompeo repeatedly condemned the nuclear deal brokered by the Obama Administration and five other world powers as “an unconscionable arrangement that increases the risk to Kansans and all Americans. The Iranian regime is intent on the destruction of our country. Why the President does not understand is unfathomable.”
On the first anniversary of the nuclear deal, in 2016, Pompeo went further and called for the end of theocratic rule in Tehran. “Congress must act to change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime,” Pompeo said. After Trump’s election, in 2016, Pompeo tweeted that he looked forward to “rolling back this disastrous deal.” At the C.I.A., Pompeo also called for the release of classified material seized from Osama bin Laden’s compound that included material about communication between Iran and the Al Qaeda leader. So far, the Trump Administration has denied in several briefings (in which I’ve participated) that it wants regime change, insisting that it seeks only a change in Iran’s behavior.
On North Korea, Pompeo made headlines last summer, when he implied, in a speech at the Aspen Security Forum, support for regime change in North Korea. “The thing that is most dangerous about it is the character who holds control” of the country’s nuclear weapons, he said. “From the Administration’s perspective, the most important thing we can do is separate those two.” After months of trading verbal threats of annihilation, President Trump accepted an invitation last week to meet with Kim Jong Un. On Sunday, Pompeo said on Fox News that the United States would offer not a single concession in negotiations with Pyongyang. “Make no mistake about it,” he said.
On Russia’s meddling in American elections, which has been confirmed by several U.S. intelligence agencies, Pompeo has echoed the comments of the President. “It’s true, yeah, of course,” he said, of the Russian interference in the 2016 election and in the election “before that, and the one before that. They’ve been at this a hell of a long time. And I don’t think they have any intention of backing off.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, tweeted that he hopes Pompeo will “turn over a new leaf” as Secretary of State and “start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin.”
Pompeo has clearly coveted the job as America’s top diplomat. At the C.I.A., he was technically restricted from making policy recommendations, but he often came close in public events and interviews. Trump often sought his opinions in private.
But Pompeo’s style, like Trump’s, is based on confrontation rather than dialogue. In Congress, he was fiercely partisan and was not seen as a figure who could reach across the political aisle. He was a pit bull about the former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s purported culpability in the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. “Instead of acting, Secretary Clinton and the rest of the administration were already spinning while mortar rounds were falling and Americans were dying,” Pompeo, a member of the Congressional committee that investigated the attack, said in a statement. The Stevens family publicly said that they did not blame Clinton.
Pompeo comes to the job with greater experience than Tillerson, a former oil executive, had, however. For most of his professional life, he has been involved in various aspects of national security. He is also credited with listening to career professionals at the C.I.A., something Tillerson did not do at the State Department.
“There is no way in the world that this is not an improvement over the present situation at the State Department,” Robert Kagan, an analyst, author, and former member of the State Department’s policy-planning staff, told me. “Tillerson was an unmitigated disaster because of the way he and his people dealt with the foreign service and the department in general. Pompeo will do a better job in working with the department rather than trying to destroy it.”
The problem, Kagan said, is less with personalities than with a lack of policy. “There is no policy. There are impulsive reactions, which are either contained or not contained by his military entourage. That’s basically all there is.”
The Pompeo appointment faces criticism, however, because it appears to consolidate the hold hawks have on the White House. “Trump is methodically destroying the moderate camp in his Administration and moving steadily crazy-hard right,” Joseph Cirincione, the president of Ploughshares Fund, an N.G.O. dedicated to containing the spread of nuclear weapons, told me. “Today’s firing and the crude, insulting way that he did it weakens the traditional conservative camp, the State Department, and American credibility. It’s almost as if someone is paying Trump to do it.”
In an e-mailed statement, Thomas Countryman, a senior diplomat who resigned last year, said, “Tillerson has been a poor advocate for the State Department but he served as a Cabinet-level check on some of President Trump’s worst impulses.” Countryman, who served as the Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, added, “If the new Secretary of State has a disdain for diplomacy mirroring Trump’s, it will be bad for the department and the country.”
In Washington, a diplomat from a Western country told me that the dramatic firing and hiring on Tuesday reflected the “total dysfunction” in the Administration—as viewed by the outside world—and his belief that things won’t get any better in the future. He compared the Trump entourage to a royal court in the seventeenth century or a Middle Eastern kingdom today. Jared Kushner, he noted, had said privately, four months ago, that he wanted to “get rid” of Tillerson. “It has the strange atmospherics of a royal court,” the diplomat said. “It’s half comedy, half tragedy.”
How long Pompeo will last is already the subject of political scuttlebutt in Washington. “Trump’s going to end up firing all these guys,” Kagan said, referring to the frequent departures from the Administration. Tillerson’s dismissal has also deepened speculation about the departure of the national-security adviser, General H. R. McMaster. The former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, an über-hawk on foreign policy, visited the White House last week; Republicans in previous Administrations told me that he is an increasingly likely candidate to replace McMaster, whose long-winded lectures Trump has grumbled about.
The President initially surrounded himself with establishment figures—at the State Department, the Pentagon, and the National Security Council—who often tried to talk Trump back from his most dramatic decisions, a senior official from the Bush Administration told me. Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis urged Trump against the decision to formally recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and move the U.S. Embassy there, for example. “The President went with his gut, and he was right,” the former official said. “And then there wasn’t rioting from Casablanca to Baghdad, so the President may have decided he was right—and wasn’t getting good advice.”
“The President,” he added, “may have decided, ‘I’m good at this.’ And that would suggest a more hawkish policy in the future.”
A previous version of this post misstated Robert Kagan’s party affiliation.