‘Never Trumpers’ Can Get State Department Jobs With Pompeo There

(Bloomberg) -- Not long ago a record of criticizing President Donald Trump was a sure way to ruin your chances of getting a job in his administration. That’s no longer true in Michael Pompeo’s State Department.

Recent months have seen Secretary of State Pompeo hire at least three previously vocal Trump critics for senior advisory roles, tossing aside a cardinal rule from the first two years of the administration when “Never Trumpers” were essentially told not to bother applying.

That list includes Elliott Abrams, who Pompeo picked last week as his special envoy to deal with the political crisis in Venezuela. Abrams’s opposition to Trump when he was running for president led the administration to block his candidacy as then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s deputy two years ago. But bygones are bygones.

State Department officials say they are just going after the best talent. More skeptical observers say the moves reflect a harsher reality: The administration has little choice given the unprecedented rate at which it’s churned through senior officials. So many conservatives with foreign policy expertise spoke out against Trump before his election that banning all of them means he’d have few qualified candidates to choose from.

‘No Bench’

“Without the ‘Never Trumpers’ they have no bench, and they need all the help they can get,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “If there’s any thawing, that’s a positive thing.”

Perhaps more surprising is that the hiring has been done by Pompeo, who has distinguished himself as one of the president’s most ardent and vocal loyalists, a rare Cabinet member who has managed to remain close to the famously fickle and mercurial president since joining the administration as CIA director in 2017.

Three people familiar with Trump and Pompeo’s conversations said it’s precisely that close relationship that has allowed Pompeo to choose the people he wants. They said Pompeo had checked directly with Trump on several hires, even overcoming White House objections in the case of Mary Kissel, a former Wall Street Journal editorial board writer whom Trump once derided as a “major loser.”

The shift became apparent last year with the hiring of James Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser and ambassador to Iraq who was picked as Pompeo’s envoy for the Syria conflict.

In 2016, Jeffrey had signed a letter written by former national security officials that warned Trump would be “a dangerous president and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being.” At the time, Trump dismissed the letter-writers as “nothing more than the failed Washington elite trying to hold onto their power.”

Pompeo then brought on Kissel, whose frequent criticism of Trump as a candidate earned her the “major loser” insult via Twitter. That came after Kissel had gone on MSNBC and said Trump had “no principles.”

Pompeo, who has lambasted the Senate for its slow pace confirming administration choices for nominees, has appointed a slew of special envoys, almost all of them fairly middle-of-the-road conservative thinkers who served in the administration of George W. Bush. They include North Korea envoy Stephen Biegun; Brian Hook, the envoy for Iran; and Zalmay Khalilzad, Bush’s former United Nations ambassador who’s working on Afghanistan policy.

‘Blacklist Fraying’

Hires like those earned Pompeo criticism from the right-leaning Breitbart News and Washington Examiner columnist Ryan Girdusky, who in November lamented that the president had now “filled his administration with the same swamp creatures he promised to drain.”

Abrams, picked last week for the Venezuela envoy job, noted after Jeffrey was hired that the administration’s block against Trump critics seemed to be crumbling.

“If this means that the blacklist is fraying, the president and the secretary of state will benefit greatly,” Abrams said in a blog post at the time.

Those who have criticized Trump -- or been criticized by him -- are also being considered for jobs elsewhere in the administration.

Trump interviewed Heidi Cruz for the job of World Bank president although he’s not offering the post to the Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive and wife of Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, people familiar with the matter said. Trump at one point tweeted an unflattering image of Heidi Cruz, disparaging her appearance, when the senator was opposing him for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

At State, Abrams is emblematic of the shift: His past positions represent much of the foreign policy thinking that Trump had derided on the campaign trail -- including his strong support for the Iraq war, which Trump has long criticized. But Abrams, like Trump, appears to have moved on.

“I can tell you that I was over at the White House yesterday,” Abrams said Wednesday. “We are all on what we call Team Venezuela, which is an effort to help the Venezuelans liberate their country from this regime.”

State Department spokesman Robert Palladino declined to make Kissel available for comment, and Jeffrey didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. But Palladino defended the hires.

“We’re incredibly fortunate to have this expertise helping advance America’s interests,” Palladino said. “We’re all one team committed to the same mission.”

And Trump has little to fear from Pompeo, who has shown an unflinching loyalty. Unlike Trump’s top intelligence officials, whose testimony on Tuesday appeared to undercut much of the president’s foreign policy strategy, the top U.S. diplomat has strenuously avoided public conflicts even when the president’s surprise moves -- like his December tweet about pulling troops from Syria -- go against State Department guidance.

“He does anticipate where Trump wants to go and realizes that pretty much everything Trump promised in the campaign he was serious about,” said Christian Whiton, a senior fellow at the Center for the National Interest and a former senior State Department adviser under Trump and George W. Bush. “Others in the Cabinet like Jim Mattis and Rex Tillerson seemed to feel it was their job to say, ‘OK, you said what you said in the campaign, now let’s get serious.”’

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