Pompeo isn’t the first secretary of state to blow up at a reporter or berate a subordinate. But what struck journalists and politicians who know Pompeo was that the Kelly incident wasn’t an aberration. Pompeo’s intimidating anger is so well known back home in Kansas that during his 2014 reelection campaign, supporters of his opponent began wearing stickers that said “Mike Bullied Me.”
A trademark Pompeo warning to critics in Kansas is the menacing phrase “It won’t go well for you,” one Kansas Republican told me. At the CIA, Pompeo became known for repeating the abrupt dismissal, “Got it, got it.” Aides considered preparing humorous buttons with the phrase “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” to encourage a gentler style, but decided against it.
Pompeo doesn’t like being challenged by journalists, and he’s often snide in putting them down. That includes the local Kansas press as well as elite Washington reporters like Kelly. When reporters from the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle asked Pompeo in March 2019 about a proposed cut in democracy assistance for Venezuela, Pompeo told them, “Yeah, you just have your math wrong. You should do better work than that.” The reporters, Bryan Lowry and Lindsay Wise, along with a third reporter, Franco Ordoñez, checked their facts with State Department and wrote: “A senior administration official acknowledged the numbers were correct.”
A few months later,Wichita Eagle reporter Jonathan Shorman pressed Pompeo on whether the U.S. troop pullout from Syria had “undercut U.S. credibility.” Pompeo thundered: “The whole predicate of your question is insane.”
Pompeo likes to take questions from local journalists when he’s traveling. But when Nashville television reporter Nancy Amons pushed him in an Oct. 11 interview about Yovanovitch, and whether Pompeo had met Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani in Warsaw, Pompeo lost his cool. “You’ve got your facts wrong,” he claimed. “It sounds like you’re working, at least in part, for the Democratic National Committee.”
Pompeo lobbed the same charge, about a different Ukraine incident, at PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff, when she said there had been “no proof of any misdoing” by former vice president Joe Biden. “You all keep repeating that line as if you’re working for the DNC,” Pompeo shot back.
Pompeo’s temper surfaced in his 2014 campaign for reelection to the House. He was challenged in the GOP primary by Todd Tiahrt, a Republican who had held the seat from 1995 until 2011 and then was defeated in a Senate bid. Tiahrt’s supporters complained in 2014 that they had been pressured not to back him by Pompeo’s camp. The Wichita Eagle was cautious in covering the squabble, noting only in one story that the “race has taken a mean-spirited turn toward charges of bullying, which unsettles other Republicans.”
The “Mike Bullies Me” stickers were an attempt to raise this issue, a Kansas Republican told me. Pompeo had been distributing stickers that said “I Like Mike” against a red-and-blue background, playing on a famous phrase used by Kansas’s favorite son, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “I Like Ike.”
There were some sharp moments, too, when Pompeo ran for reelection in 2016. At a forum at an African American church, he got into a tense exchange with his Democratic rival, Daniel B. Giroux. Pompeo had called Giroux a liar for saying that Pompeo had denounced then-President Barack Obama. When Giroux countered that he had the comment on video, Pompeo backed off, but he warned Giroux, “You’ll pay for this,” according to one person who was present.
At the CIA, Pompeo won respect for his powerful intellect. That’s been true with every job he’s held since he graduated first in his class from West Point. Maj. Gen. John Kem, who was in Pompeo’s company for two years and is now commandant of the Army War College, said Pompeo had “a pretty deft touch” with fellow cadets, in addition to his academic brilliance.
CIA colleagues worried about the toll of Pompeo’s blistering emails and his profane tongue-lashing of colleagues who disagreed. His deputy, Gina Haspel, now director, would sometimes clean up after Pompeo by visiting people he had criticized to reassure them. Such buffers were essential, some colleagues believed.
What concerned some CIA officials most was that Pompeo could be so dismissive of dissenting views that he risked overlooking the unexpected “black swan” events that could harm America.
Pompeo has become so powerful in the Trump administration that he’s almost a prime minister. He’s unquestionably very intelligent. But he has a belligerent streak that even his supporters have long recognized is a severe liability. He should be smart enough to fix it.