His motivations were obvious. Pompeo is pandering to Trump and his Make America Great Again officials, who are still denying the election results (often without Pompeo-style chuckles). The secretary of state knows that his future as a leader in the Trump-dominated Republican Party and his prospects for a 2024 presidential run depend on maintaining his MAGA bona fides. Less visible is the parallel game Pompeo is playing to woo the GOP foreign policy establishment — the same establishment Trump’s MAGA loyalists are trying to destroy.
Few noticed the speech Pompeo gave Tuesday morning before his news-making press conference, at the launch of the Ronald Reagan Institute’s Center for Freedom and Democracy. His prepared remarks, unlike his impromptu news conference joke, were carefully crafted to make the case that the Trump administration’s foreign policy approach is rooted in Reagan’s vision of American exceptionalism and the promotion of freedom and democracy against authoritarianism worldwide.
“He, President Reagan, put his belief in freedom and the American promise at the very center of how he thought about foreign policy,” Pompeo said. “And so is the Trump administration.”
It’s a tendentious argument that Pompeo and other senior Trump national security officials have made for years. By cherry-picking Reagan slogans such as “peace through strength” and “shining city on a hill,” Trump officials are asking their audiences to ignore an obvious flaw in their claims of continuity: Trump has made clear that he does not believe in American exceptionalism and disdains the idea of pushing American values in foreign countries.
The Trump-Pompeo foreign policy legacy is not without its accomplishments; it can claim credit for facilitating Israel’s normalization with Persian Gulf monarchies and killing terrorist leaders. But the expansion of freedom and democracy simply did not occur on Trump’s watch. In fact, Freedom House reported that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of democratic decline around the world.
Although U.S. officials are happy to wag a finger about freedom and democracy in the face of regimes such as Iran and Venezuela, “the Trump administration has failed to exhibit consistent commitment to a foreign policy based on the principles of democracy and human rights,” the Freedom House report stated. That has left a vacuum authoritarians have rushed to fill.
There’s also great irony in Pompeo repeatedly quoting Reagan’s June 1982 speech to the British Parliament at Westminster, where the Gipper called for building an “infrastructure of democracy.” His administration soon followed up by creating several new institutions to promote American values abroad, including the National Endowment for Democracy. The Trump administration, by contrast, has repeatedly proposed slashing funding for NED and its partner organizations, only to be rebuffed by a bipartisan bulwark in Congress.
In the wake of Trump’s loss, the GOP establishment is trying to bolster that very infrastructure. The Reagan Institute’s first step is to bring Democrats and Republicans together in a project called the “Westminster 2.0 working group,” co-chaired by Mark Green, former U.S. Agency for International Development administrator and former International Republican Institute president, and by Kenneth Wollack, former National Democratic Institute president. The project’s goal is to “update the infrastructure and modernize the tool kit for promoting freedom and supporting democracy in today’s world,” Reagan Institute policy director Rachel Hoff told me.
Pompeo is trying to play to the MAGA crowd and the GOP foreign policy establishment at the same time. But that balancing act is becoming more difficult as the GOP moves into opposition and 2024 politics begin in earnest. The MAGA crowd is not even waiting until the end of Trump’s term to attack GOP establishment foreign policy officials across the Trump administration, shattering an already shaky truce.
At the Pentagon, USAID and other agencies, Trump loyalists are purging GOP officials and trying to humiliate them in the process. All the 2024 GOP presidential aspirants, not just Pompeo, may find satisfying both of these factions increasingly untenable. Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio and others will try to dodge the contradiction until they are forced to confront it.
If compelled to choose, the MAGA foreign policy platform seems more politically expedient, especially in a Republican primary contest. The problem is, Republicans like Pompeo likely believe in Reagan’s vision over Trump’s and would prefer to govern that way as well.
Not all 2024 GOP prospects are caught on the horns of this dilemma. Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan will be the next politician to speak to the Reagan Institute. Last month, when asked if he chose Trump or Biden, he said he “voted for Ronald Reagan.”