In dozens of tweets from his official State Department account since Jan. 1, Pompeo has hailed Trump’s “huge wins” and suggested the president should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts in the Middle East.
“We restored America’s credibility,” Pompeo said, reviewing his nearly three years at the State Department.
To independent observers, the remarks are wildly tone-deaf and reinforce Pompeo’s status as one of the most partisan secretaries of state in modern U.S. history. While Pompeo claims Americans have been “safer” under Trump’s watch, the coronavirus death toll in the United States is fast approaching 400,000, with more than 3,000 Americans dying daily. Pompeo’s promotion of “founding ideals” and the projection of U.S. “values” abroad came as the president attempted to subvert results of a democratic election, a bedrock of the United States’ global image.
To Republican political observers, Pompeo’s unflinching promotion of a twice-impeached president is part of a careful balancing act designed to lay future claim to Trump’s large and loyal political base while retaining credibility among the GOP establishment.
“He has done a masterful job at walking that fine line,” Danielle Pletka, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said of Pompeo. “I am pressed to think of anyone who has done it better.”
Pompeo’s subservience to the “Make America Great Again” legacy comes as another potential 2024 presidential hopeful, Vice President Pence, falls out of favor with Trump’s die-hard followers, including some Capitol rioters who chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” over his refusal to attempt to subvert the election. And Trump himself may come away damaged from his election brinkmanship, as Silicon Valley strips him of his social media megaphones, businesses and local governments sever ties with his companies and lawyers warn him of a growing list of legal risks that will live beyond his presidency.
“A month ago, everyone thought Trump would be the leader of the opposition. Now, there’s an enormous disruption about the notion that he can lead the conservative party going forward,” said James Carafano, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation. “That opens up space for everyone in the conservative movement, including Pompeo.”
Pompeo, who has made no secret of his presidential ambitions, is scrambling to build up his social media presence during his final week in office, repeatedly urging the more than 3 million followers of the official State Department account to follow his personal Twitter account.
“I will never stop fighting for America First, even after my time as Secretary of State,” he tweeted Monday. “There is always more work to be done and I look forward to continuing to share and engage with you on what's next. If you haven’t already, please be sure to follow me @mikepompeo.”
To some observers of Pompeo’s attempts at retail politics, his presidential ambitions are borderline delusional. The former Kansas congressman styles himself as an anti-elitist Midwesterner despite hailing from California with a law degree from Harvard. He is known to charm small gatherings of political donors with his quick wit and pithy rhetoric, but when he delivers speeches to large audiences, he speeds through prepared remarks awkwardly, often swallowing words and lacking cadence or gravitas.
“His primary goal was to do his job while being completely sycophantic to Trump, even if he came off as Manichaean and un-nuanced,” said Tom Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “That’s the legacy of Pompeo: Trump’s most loyal lieutenant — even more so than Pence. So now he’s the heir to that.”
One of the few times Pompeo expressed annoyance at criticism of his closeness to Trump came with the publication of a New Yorker profile quoting an unnamed U.S. ambassador saying Pompeo was like a “heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”
Pompeo told CBS, “I find the language offensive, and I find the statement ludicrous.”
Pompeo’s piety about curse words came as a surprise to some in his inner circle who noted his frequent use of profanities during heated office interactions.
But what Pompeo might lack in charisma, he makes up for in devotion to the powerful constituencies that loom large in Republican politics. With a distracted president, Pompeo has used his considerable authorities as secretary of state to implement last-minute policy moves that excite Republican pressure groups, hamper the incoming Biden administration’s diplomatic efforts and potentially pay dividends for his own political future.
On Jan. 9, Pompeo said he was lifting restrictions on contacts between U.S. diplomats and Taiwanese officials, a decision that infuriated Beijing but won praise from Washington’s Taiwan lobby. On Jan. 10, Pompeo announced his intention to designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization, a move sought by anti-Iran hard-liners and pro-Israel donors despite concerns among aid organizations that it would dramatically worsen the humanitarian situation in Yemen. On Jan. 11, Pompeo relisted Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, a gift to Cuban American voters in South Florida that security experts said had little credible policy basis.
A Pompeo aide who handles his media relations, Katie Martin, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Pompeo has suggested that the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 will not damage his reputation, or the president’s, despite embarrassment and dismay inside the State Department about Pompeo’s response to the attack.
“Look, what happened that day was terrible, and I have said repeatedly that those folks who engaged in this activity need to be identified, prosecuted, and they are criminals and ought to be treated as such,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “But history will reflect on the good work that this president and our administration has done. Those books will be written about the changes that we have made in the world, the recognition that we have taken about reality, sovereignty, respect for basic dignity and human rights, a return to the founding principles in a way that previous administrations had not done.”
At the State Department, U.S. diplomats and civil servants have criticized Pompeo’s response to the assault, airing their dismay in the department’s “dissent” channel, a protected method of conveying internal policy disputes. One dissent memo signed by more than 100 officials said Pompeo had damaged U.S. democracy by “failing to publicly hold the president to account.” Another noted the hypocrisy of holding foreign governments to account for anti-democratic behavior without stressing that the U.S. president is not “above the law.”
But Pompeo appears unbothered by such critiques, or charges that he is trying to “bluff his way to a legacy,” as an essay in Foreign Policy magazine claimed.
Scholars of the U.S. role at the United Nations have raised particular exception to Pompeo’s efforts to popularize the hashtag #EffectiveMultilateralism, touting the Trump administration’s work with other nations.
Richard Gowan, the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, ticked off a list of Pompeo’s beleaguered efforts to win support at the United Nations on issues such as Iran, Venezuela, China and human rights.
“Ultimately, the administration has turned losing diplomatic battles at the U.N. into an art form, largely failing to get other states to do its bidding and then claiming this just shows the U.S. is better than other countries,” Gowan said. “This clumsy approach often made it easier for China to gain influence at the U.N.”
By his original metrics for success, Pompeo has struggled to come away with big accomplishments. Iran, his main focus of attention, is closer to a nuclear bomb than when he took office, and its aggressive behavior toward the United States has increased since the Obama era. North Korea has further developed its nuclear arsenal despite Pompeo’s attempts to negotiate with Pyongyang. The U.S. standing at the United Nations and in European capitals has suffered under his tenure.
The Trump administration has taken on a more aggressive posture toward China, though critics debate how much it has to show for it. While the European Union has gone ahead with an investment pact with China despite U.S. objections, backers of the administration point to Washington’s success in encouraging more countries to commit to using telecommunications partners unaffiliated with Beijing.
“I’m in favor of a strong posture towards China, but he undermined that by taking such a hard line that it alienated allies,” Wright said. “By painting terms in black and white, it makes diplomacy more difficult. But Pompeo never cared about that, because his audience was the MAGA movement.”
Many conservatives look at Pompeo’s tenure as largely successful, Carafano said, because he remained “tough on bad guys like Iran and China.”
But U.S. presidents rarely win the White House based on claims of foreign policy success.
“His struggle will be that national security issues don’t really resonate,” Pletka said. “If you’re speaking at a local bar in rural West Virginia and you say, ‘We upped sanctions on Iran and helped derail the terrible JCPOA,’ that’s not going to get anybody’s beer up in the air cheering you.”