Even when they are thousands of miles apart, President Donald Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, act in symbiosis.
As Trump speculated from Washington this week that “rogue killers” rather than Saudi leaders might have targeted the missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Pompeo smiled with the crown prince in Riyadh and sidestepped mounting evidence that Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudi state, citing ongoing investigations. From the Oval Office and Brussels airport, each man emphasized how vital Saudi Arabia is to the U.S. economy and to American priorities like countering Iran and terrorist groups.
Pompeo’s management of the fallout from Khashoggi’s recent disappearance at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has been morally fraught, on message even as the messages rapidly change, and laser-focused on American interests.
Through the crisis, Pompeo has delivered a master class in how to operate effectively in the Trump administration (even though he may well disagree with the president on crucial issues—including, according to one aide, relations with Russia).
Pompeo “has clearly emerged as the president’s chief spokesman on foreign policy, to the extent that anybody in this administration besides Donald Trump can be a chief spokesman,” Ivo Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the co-author of a recent book on Trump’s foreign policy, told me.
A more conventional administration than Trump’s would have spoken out more forcefully against the suspected state-sanctioned slaughter of a journalist, but Washington’s relationship with Riyadh “has remained a bedrock principle of American foreign policy toward the region, and I don’t think it would have been fundamentally altered had someone else been president,” he said.
“We would have just dressed it up in a rhetorical flourish that Donald Trump dismisses as political correctness and therefore ignores,” Daalder noted.
What was witnessed in Saudi Arabia this week was a raw display of the president’s realist-nationalist agenda in action.
The lesson of the first year of Trump’s presidency “was that a lot of people in the administration”—figures such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former National-Security Adviser H. R. McMaster, and the former economic adviser Gary Cohn—“thought they could mold Trump into something different than what he was,” Daalder said. “And they failed.”
Pompeo, who became secretary of state in April, after earning Trump’s admiration as CIA director, “doesn’t have a hidden agenda,” said Mark Chenoweth, who served as Pompeo’s chief of staff in Congress from 2011 to 2013. “He’s not trying to accomplish something other than what the president has asked him to do. That just puts him in a really strong position to build trust with the president.”
What Trump is asking Mike Pompeo to do, however, is not necessarily what Mike Pompeo would do if left to his own devices.
While there’s considerable overlap in how the president and his secretary of state think about the world, the discontinuities are also notable.
A businessman from Kansas who came to Congress in 2011 as part of the Tea Party movement, Pompeo initially endorsed Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who championed a far more mainstream, internationalist, Reagan-esque foreign policy than Trump did during his presidential campaign in 2016.
And while Trump has repeatedly advocated friendly relations with Russia and dismissed the threat posed by Vladimir Putin, Pompeo, who served as an Army tank commander along the East–West German border at the end of the Cold War, has a markedly different perspective.
When Barack Obama ridiculed Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign for describing Russia as America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Pompeo “fully agreed with” Romney, Chenoweth told me.
“This whole idea that Russia was somehow no longer a geopolitical foe was not something that Mike believed,” said Chenoweth, who is now the executive director and general counsel at the New Civil Liberties Alliance.
As a congressman, Pompeo accused Putin of “trying to make America look like a third-world country” with his interference in the 2016 election and argued that Obama’s sanctions weren’t a severe enough response to Russia’s forcible annexation of Ukrainian territory and attempted “reordering of Europe.”
In attending West Point and serving in the military, Pompeo saw “how important American force projection is in maintaining world peace and stability,” Chenoweth noted. (Trump, by contrast, has questioned the value of U.S. military alliances and forward-deployed troops around the world.) “But that doesn’t mean that he’s trigger-happy. I never heard him, for example, talk about the desire to use American military forces to promote democracy” in places it doesn’t exist.
Still, the president and secretary of state do share something of a worldview.
As a lawmaker, Pompeo staked out a number of positions that Trump would later take as a presidential candidate and as president.
He was a fierce critic of the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran and other world powers, and advocated for all-out war against jihadist terrorism and for restrictionist immigration and refugee policies. He often made a narrow interests-driven, America First–like argument for remaining involved overseas, in which American values and the shared interests of allies and the international community didn’t feature prominently.
Chuck Knapp, a fellow Kansan and the former deputy chief of staff to Pompeo when he first entered Congress, told me that the secretary of state is “similar to [Trump] and a lot of Americans” in believing that “we’re a member of a global community, but first and foremost our priority is the United States and the American people.”
Pompeo, for instance, called for U.S. military intervention in Syria not to back pro-democracy forces or to alleviate humanitarian suffering. Instead, he argued that the war there could spawn terrorist activity and spark a migration crisis that could reach all the way to Kansas. “What starts in Damascus doesn’t stay in Damascus, as much as I might wish that it were so,” Pompeo said in a speech in Wichita in 2016. He made the case that the United States should partner on counterterrorism with authoritarian leaders in the Middle East even though they’re not “Thomas Jeffersons.”
Pompeo’s time as CIA director and secretary of state hasn’t shed much more light on his core convictions on foreign policy. Whereas McMaster imprinted his vision of a 21st century rife with geopolitical competition on everything from the administration’s National Security Strategy to its North Korea policies, Pompeo has largely subjugated his personal views to those of the president. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he has thrived where his predecessors fell short.
Hence, Pompeo doesn’t talk much about Russia these days and earnestly serves as the point person for Trump’s sunny summit diplomacy with North Korea, even though he’s reportedly deeply skeptical that Kim Jong Un will negotiate away his nuclear weapons. Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, has championed certain human-rights issues, such as religious freedom. He has also selectively raised human-rights concerns about adversaries like China and Iran that the Trump administration is seeking to pressure into making concessions.
In a sign of what may be in store with the Khashoggi case, however, the secretary of state has repeatedly downplayed human-rights abuses when American interests as defined by the Trump administration demand it—be it in maintaining U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen despite atrocities against civilians or releasing military aid to Egypt that his predecessor withheld over the Egyptian government’s severe repression.
There are stylistic differences between Trump and Pompeo, with the president more the blustery, provocative deal maker and his secretary of state more the “businesslike … bulldog,” said John Todd, the vice president of the local Republican Pachyderm Club in Wichita, where Pompeo made several appearances as a congressman. “But in the end, I think the goals they’re trying to achieve dovetail. That makes for an effective approach.”
“When you look at the Trump administration and the number of people who have come and gone and been weeded out,” Todd added, “I don’t think Mike Pompeo’s gonna be weeded out.”
Hours after huddling with Trump on the Khashoggi case on Thursday, Pompeo jetted off again to once more meet under tense circumstances with an ally, this time in Latin America.
Asked ahead of his visit to Mexico City about the president’s latest threats to send the U.S. military to the southern border and scrap his recently concluded trade deal with Mexico over a surge in unauthorized migration, Pompeo deferred to Trump.
“Yeah, I don’t have anything to add to the president’s statement this morning,” he said.
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