It all could have gone so differently. Six months ago, it seemed as though Pompeo had it all. He had avoided President Trump’s ire and was viewed as a reliable foreign policy interlocutor. True, some folks were calling on him to resign, and inspector general reports and the impeachment hearings had revealed his near-total lack of scruples. Nonetheless, the secretary of state was enjoying his life, yelling at NPR reporters with impunity and, with the help of his accomplice/wife, Susan Pompeo, convening “Madison dinners” to cultivate the rich and powerful within the GOP.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had been pleading with Pompeo to run for the Senate in Kansas to avert the possible catastrophe of Kris Kobach securing the nomination. If Pompeo has said yes, he probably would have won this fall, leaving him with a sterling resume of former congressman, CIA director, secretary of state and U.S. senator. He could have escaped the administration almost unscathed, poised for 2024 or the rapture, whichever came first.
But Pompeo said no to McConnell and decided to stay at Foggy Bottom. Maybe he thought that Trump would coast to a second term. Maybe he liked his proximity to power. We will never know. What we do know, however, is that he made the wrong choice.
Pompeo remains close to Trump, but the president lacks the power he possessed even six months ago. As Trump’s chances of reelection continue to look bleak, his power and influence are waning. As my Washington Post colleague Ashley Parker reported Sunday, GOP lawmakers, public health officials and treaty allies are all heavily discounting anything the president says. Trump keeps issuing executive orders that make him feel good but have little effect.
There is a sense of end times around the executive branch that evokes an old “30 Rock” episode when Jack Donaghy decides to join the George W. Bush administration in its waning days.
(Side note: That episode presages a surprising amount about the current administration. It contains a contagion event and a president who likes diminutive nicknames. Jack actually tells GOP members of Congress, “We have a chance to make this country great again.” “30 Rock” holds up amazingly well! But I digress.)
According to Politico’s Nancy Cook, top administration officials, exasperated with the president’s flailing, are seeking a way out: “Several White House and administration officials have also started to reach out to other Republicans to try to find jobs in the private sector as quickly as possible … because there is consternation that they need to find new gigs in case Trump loses in November, drying up the market for Trump-connected aides.”
As my Post colleague Josh Rogin reports, this is leading to a foreign policy of salting the earth.
Although they would never admit it publicly, several administration officials have privately acknowledged that the current flurry of foreign policy activity is partly attributable to the realization that President Trump might lose. So they’re now trying, they say, to take care of unfinished business and to move some of their initiatives so far ahead that a new administration won’t be able to move them back....This is not how an administration that expects another term would act. If Trump is reelected, his leverage on foreign policy issues across the board will go up bigly. If they thought Trump was going to win, the members of his team would likely wait and then negotiate on all these issues from a position of strength next year. Of course, they could be just hedging. But the moves that Trump officials are making now show they are thinking about their legacy — and realizing their days may be numbered.
I have every confidence that Pompeo would be enthusiastic about implementing a foreign policy premised on destruction. That has been his modus operandi for quite some time. Still, now he is doing it shorthanded. His partner-in-crime Brian Hook has decided to leave the State Department. He has little to show for his tenure besides an Iran that is closer to developing a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, he had Pompeo’s trust and now he’s gone.
Also gone is Pompeo’s handpicked inspector general after less than three months on the job, which raises several eyebrows. My Post colleague John Hudson explains:
Stephen Akard’s departure was announced to staff by his deputy, Diana R. Shaw, who told colleagues that she will become the temporary acting inspector general effective on Friday....In a note to her inspector general’s office colleagues that was obtained by The Washington Post, Shaw said Akard was taking a position with a law firm in Indiana, his home state. It’s unclear whether there were other factors in his decision.Pompeo dismissed a question about Akard’s departure during a news conference on Wednesday. “He left to go back home,” Pompeo said. “This happens. I don’t have anything more to add to that.”Akard’s resignation again throws into turmoil an office responsible for ongoing investigations into wrongdoing at the department, including those started by Linick. Shaw told colleagues: “I will do my best not to let this latest change negatively affect our operations.”
If Pompeo sounds curt in his response, it might be because he engineered the firing of the previous inspector general and now has to find a new one. Furthermore, this administration is scraping the bottom of the foreign policy D-list to find replacement personnel and is still coming up short (see here and here for examples).
Pompeo cannot escape the whiff of scandal. Politico’s Nahal Toosi has reported that the secretary faced bureaucratic resistance to his insistence on bringing his wife overseas on the taxpayers’ dime during the government shutdown. State Department officials correctly warned Pompeo that “there is a risk that Mrs. Pompeo’s travel during a shutdown could attract media attention and potential criticism in the Congress and elsewhere."
Of course, Pompeo remains the secretary of state, a nominally powerful position. His Faustian bargain to stay in power, however, continues to hamstring his diplomacy. As the New York Times’s Ed Wong and Eric Schmitt reported, Pompeo did castigate the Russian foreign minister over intelligence showing the Russians paying bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Alas, “Mr. Pompeo and the State Department have been careful not to reveal any details of actions he might have taken based on the intelligence over the bounties. That is perhaps because of both the classified material and to avoid potential fury from Mr. Trump, who has strongly dismissed reports of the intelligence and has tried to cultivate a friendship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.”
The Bulwark’s David Kramer noted last month that “Pompeo appears to be under the impression that the secretary of state’s responsibility is not to promote American interests abroad, but rather to do battle in the culture war at home.” There is an alternative hypothesis, however: Pompeo is focusing on domestic politics because he has been denuded of any ability to affect international affairs.
Mike Pompeo could have been someone; he could have been a contender. Instead, he has become a punchline. Even from harsh critics like myself, that merits a dollop of pity.
[Editor’s note: the original version of this column misidentified Susan Pompeo as Mary Pompeo.]