Sure, Tillerson might not have known what he was doing once he left ExxonMobil, but he was at least ethical and well-intentioned — and not afraid to stand up to President Trump. As my Post colleagues Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig report in their new book, “A Very Stable Genius,” Tillerson was the only person with the guts to chew out Trump when the president denounced senior generals as a “bunch of dopes and babies” in a Pentagon meeting. “No, that’s just wrong,” Tillerson is quoted as saying. “Mr. President, you’re totally wrong. None of that is true.”
It’s impossible to imagine Pompeo calling out Trump like that. Susan B. Glasser wrote in the New Yorker that a former senior White House official described Pompeo as “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” That’s saying something, because Trump is surrounded by more servile courtiers than a medieval monarch.
While Tillerson worked to restrain Trump from leaving the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord, Pompeo has been nothing but a smirking cheerleader for the president’s most pugnacious instincts. He is, in fact, the mastermind behind a standoff that has left Iran closer to having a nuclear weapon than when Trump took office. His reward for being Trump’s enabler is to amass far more influence than Tillerson ever did. Pompeo is the most powerful member of the Cabinet, easily overshadowing the low-profile national security adviser and defense secretary. He is a virtual prime minister.
Pompeo’s rise to preeminence has not served either the president or the country well. The secretary of state had a front-row seat to Trump’s efforts to blackmail Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden — and he did nothing to stop the unethical actions that have now gotten Trump impeached.
Pompeo readily cooperated when Trump’s goon squad, led by Rudolph W. Giuliani, decided that Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch had to be ousted so they could carry out what John Bolton called their “drug deal.” Although he later played dumb, Pompeo was a participant in the July 25 phone call in which Trump threatened Yovanovitch (“She’s going to go through some things”) and asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” by investigating Biden. Michael McKinley, a veteran Foreign Service officer, testified that he repeatedly asked Pompeo to defend Yovanovitch, but the secretary of state refused to do so.
Pompeo refused to come to Yovanovitch’s defense even after the release of text messages showing that one of Giuliani’s confederates, Robert F. Hyde, claimed to have a team surveilling her and even implied that she might be harmed. (Hyde now says it was all a big joke.) Morale at the State Department — the Department of Swagger, as Pompeo absurdly tried to rebrand it — is reportedly lower than ever.
On Friday, Mary Louise Kelly, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” asked Pompeo if he owed Yovanovitch an apology. Pompeo didn’t like that question; he preferred to talk about Iran. He claimed (falsely), “I’ve defended every single person on this team,” and ended the interview. Afterward, Kelly reports, Pompeo “shouted at me for about the same amount of time as the interview itself,” dropping several “f-bombs” along the way. She said the secretary of state demanded, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” and had an aide bring a blank map to see if she could point out where it’s located. She says she did. (One wonders if Trump — who reportedly doesn’t know that China and India share a more than 2,000-mile border — could pass the same test.)
Rather than apologizing profusely for his unprofessional and unacceptable conduct, Pompeo doubled down. On Saturday, he released a bonkers statement in which he accused Kelly of lying about the subject of the interview and supposedly refusing to honor an agreement “to have our post-interview conversation off the record.” Kelly denies that she ever agreed to put anything off the record, and she has emails proving that Pompeo’s aides knew she would be asking about Ukraine.
Pompeo ended with a zinger: “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.” This was widely seen as an attempt to suggest, without explicitly saying so, that Kelly mistook a large country in South Asia for a large country in Eastern Europe. That seems highly improbable for such an experienced national security reporter with a graduate degree in European studies from Cambridge University.
In any other administration (or, for that matter, any major company), Pompeo would be reprimanded, at the very least, for his abusive behavior. In this administration, his incivility will no doubt win further favor with a president who views rudeness as a virtue. Pompeo has become a Trump mini-me who emulates his master in boorishness, bombast, bullying — and dishonesty. Every day that Pompeo stays in office, he makes Tillerson — once seen as the worst secretary of state ever — look better by comparison.