Trump Chose Pompeo as Kindred Spirit to Take Over U.S. Diplomacy

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(Bloomberg) -- Mike Pompeo had an audition for his new job as secretary of state just about every morning at the White House, where the CIA director gave President Donald Trump his top-secret intelligence briefing.

Pompeo has “tremendous energy, tremendous intellect,” Trump told reporters at the White House Tuesday shortly after tweeting that he was firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and giving the job of top diplomat to the former Republican congressman from Kansas. Equally important was Trump’s observation that “we’re always on the same wavelength.”

Pompeo, 54, has been a key defender of the president’s policies, from Iran to China, and has shown a fierce loyalty, including a proclivity to indulge some of Trump’s views on controversial issues such as Russian meddling in the 2016 election. While that may have improved the standing of an agency Trump attacked repeatedly during his presidential campaign and the transition, it also raised concerns about Pompeo’s commitment to keep the CIA free of politics.

As much as anyone in the administration, Pompeo has mastered the art of communicating with this president. Pompeo has been one of the first people in the Oval Office each morning when he shows up to deliver the intelligence briefing -- and he delivers it in bite-sized, boiled-down charts and graphics designed to maximize the attention of a president with a famously short attention span.

Tillerson’s Disagreements

Trump has been mulling plans to replace Tillerson since at least September, according to one administration official. Tillerson disagreed with Trump on issues from his decision to quit the Paris climate accords to his inclination to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran.

While Tillerson’s laconic Texas drawl was at odds with Trump’s style, the president may have found his mirror image in Pompeo, who shares his penchant for being combative and opinionated.

Before being tapped to run the CIA, Pompeo spent six years as a Republican representative from Kansas. Even among the first-time representatives who helped the GOP take over the House as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave, he stood out as a strident critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He’s perhaps best known for his role castigating Hillary Clinton’s response to the 2012 Benghazi attacks.

Pompeo ended up drafting his own conclusions separate from the findings of the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican majority. He was also one of the strongest critics of the Iran nuclear deal.

“Pompeo has a sort of hard-line approach on foreign policy that’s quite black and white, and that’s also how Trump sees the world,” Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who worked at the State Department under then-Secretary John Kerry, said in an interview in December. “This is where Pompeo has really been able to endear himself to Trump.”

West Point Grad

Pompeo also has the kind of résumé Trump loves to brag about: West Point graduate, U.S. Army veteran, Harvard-trained lawyer, and business owner. In 2006, Pompeo sold the manufacturing company he’d founded, Thayer Aerospace.

While Tillerson has gained a reputation for being isolated and aloof at the State Department, Pompeo holds monthly “Meet With Mike” sessions where CIA officers shoot him questions in an open setting. While Tillerson has in many ways rolled back the State Department’s global presence and centralized its decision-making, Pompeo has empowered CIA staffers. Field officers are encouraged to “carry out more aggressive, agile operations,” CIA spokesmen have said. Pompeo has also moved officers out of Washington and into remote areas and pushed decision-making down the chain of command.

Yet not everything he’s done has been well-received inside the CIA. Pompeo’s decision to have the agency’s counterintelligence unit report directly to him while multiple parts of the government are investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign carried political overtones.

It also raised questions about whether he could influence intelligence that the CIA was sharing with the FBI or congressional committees. A CIA spokesman said when asked about the issue last year that Pompeo’s decision was aimed at stopping the “dangerous leaks and insider threats” that he saw emanating from the agency when he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Pleasing Trump

Pompeo’s alignment with Trump and outspokenness on sensitive policy issues raised questions among current and former CIA staffers who questioned whether the agency’s director was pursuing policies and making recommendations that would please the White House, former intelligence officers say.

There were also reports of unconventional meetings Pompeo held at the CIA, including with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, and William Binney, a former National Security Agency whistleblower who claims someone with access to the Democratic National Committee leaked its data rather than Russian hackers.

While Tillerson has been critical of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign and its intervention from Ukraine to Syria, Pompeo has at times bolstered Trump’s view that inquiries into Russian election meddling is a “witch hunt” intended to undercut his presidency.

In October, Pompeo caused a stir when he said the intelligence community’s assessment of Russia’s campaign interference was that it “did not affect the outcome of the election.” Yet the report released by intelligence agencies in January 2017 explicitly said that it “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome.” Pompeo subsequently clarified his remarks.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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