For Pompeo, Vote for State Department Job Was the Easy Part

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(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is as secure as any Trump administration official can be. He’s close to the president, understands Congress and has been welcomed by subordinates desperate for better leadership.

The question looming over Pompeo a day after his swearing-in: How long can the honeymoon last?

In an administration where fortunes quickly rise or fall, Pompeo, who previously served as CIA director, is a survivor. But he’s stepping into a job where the shifting demands of a mercurial president proved too much for his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who once ran the world’s biggest oil company. And he’ll have to find a way to balance President Donald Trump’s demands for budget cuts with staff expectations that he’ll have their backs.

“Pompeo undoubtedly will rely on his shared political perspective and his personal relationship with the president, but given the way this president plays this role, it’s hard to see how you’re not going to have some degree of daylight,” said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.

Tillerson Undercut

From the Korean peninsula to the Middle East, Tillerson found himself undercut repeatedly by a president who once said “I’m the only one that matters” on foreign policy. That was underscored by Trump’s sudden decision to accept an invitation to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and to dispatch Pompeo for a preparatory visit with the reclusive leader.

When Tillerson had said months earlier that the U.S. was open to talks with Pyongyang, Trump shut him down, telling him -- and the world -- via Twitter that he was “wasting his time.”

After the Senate confirmed Pompeo on Thursday, Trump sought to send the signal that he wouldn’t undercut his new top diplomat, calling him an “incredible asset for our country at this critical time in history.”

“He has my trust,” Trump said in a White House statement. “He has my support.”

Narrow Vote

While many lawmakers praised Pompeo’s leadership of the Central Intelligence Agency, where he made a point of meeting regularly with career employees, his past comments appearing to condone torture and disparaging Muslims and gays eroded support for him taking over a more public role as the nation’s top diplomat.

In a sign of wariness over his qualifications and the administration’s foreign policy, Pompeo was confirmed Thursday as America’s 70th secretary of state on a vote of 57-42. By comparison, John Kerry was confirmed 94-3 in the Obama administration.

“We can do better than this,” said Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat. “America is better than this.”

The 54-year-old Pompeo and Trump bonded over morning intelligence briefings at the White House and shared views on the inadequacy of the Iran nuclear deal and the need to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. But the former congressman from Kansas isn’t likely to be around the Oval Office as frequently in his new role.

NATO Trip

Pompeo’s tests began immediately, as he traveled to Brussels for a meeting Friday of NATO foreign ministers. He then goes on to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel to visit with top leaders. Pompeo is also seeking to expedite efforts to fill top department jobs -- an issue that bedeviled Tillerson from his earliest days.

In Brussels, he reassured NATO allies, stressing the importance of the alliance and saying that Trump “very much wanted me to get here.”

“I hopped on a plane and came straight here,” Pompeo told reporters. “There’s good reason for that: the work that’s being done here today is invaluable and our objectives are important and this mission means a lot to the United States of America.”

Turkish Talks

Pompeo also took on one of the most challenging U.S. foreign policy challenges -- the relationship with NATO ally Turkey. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey has fostered closer ties with Russia and has clashed with the U.S. over American support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Pompeo met with Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, and the two leaders reaffirmed “their support for the established bilateral process to find a common way forward,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Yet the new secretary of state will have a plate full of issues in which a misstep could mar his tenure. Trump has set a May 12 deadline to decide whether he’ll keep the U.S. in the Iran nuclear deal. Pompeo, who previously criticized the agreement as harshly as Trump, signaled more flexibility during his confirmation hearing, saying he’d work to strengthen the deal if he could.

He’ll also have to manage expectations for Trump’s summit with North Korea’s Kim, an unprecedented meeting that could greatly ease tensions between the two countries -- or exacerbate them. Other festering issues include the continuing wars in Syria and Afghanistan, deteriorating relations with Russia and a spat between U.S. allies in the Middle East that pits a group led by Saudi Arabia against Qatar.

Public Give-and-Take

Now, instead of the hard and secret fact-gathering of an intelligence czar, his remit will be the often public give-and-take of diplomacy.

“The secretary can’t not speak out,” said Richard Fontaine, president of the Center for a New American Security. “Tillerson tried this, but you’re the chief spokesman for U.S. foreign policy in the world, you’re the chief diplomat, so the answer can’t be hide and not speak publicly. You just have to deal with that risk.”

The impermanence of the president’s trust remains the biggest danger to Pompeo’s longevity. In 15 months, Trump has churned through senior staff at an unprecedented pace. He’s now on his third national security adviser and his second chief of staff. He gave his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, responsibility for engineering a Middle East peace process and improving ties with Mexico, two issues normally in the secretary of state’s portfolio.

Pompeo has had the advantage of a close-up view as others have succeeded or failed with Trump. While Tillerson provided a road map for failure, stolid Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has managed to retain the president’s trust even while resisting his inclinations to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria and threaten military intervention elsewhere.

“He is clearly a guy who asserts himself, he doesn’t seem to wait around to do things,” I. Mac Destler, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and the author of a book about U.S. national security advisers, said of Pompeo. “So far he’s been good at staying connected to the president, which is a condition to the job.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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