Perhaps nobody in President Trump’s Cabinet has shown a talent for remaining in his good graces like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. And he’s done it despite running the CIA for a president who attacked his own intelligence community and despite serving as the top diplomat for a president prone to popping off on the world stage.
All Pompeo has had to do is repeatedly pretend Trump didn’t say what he said, and bark at people who ask the wrong questions.
Pompeo engaged in a tense back-and-forth this weekend with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace after Wallace had the temerity to ask him about Trump saying he might accept dirt on political opponents from foreign governments like Russia.
“Is accepting oppo research from a foreign government right or wrong?” Wallace asked
Pompeo shot back: “Chris, you asked me not to call any of your questions today ridiculous. You came really close right there. President Trump has been very clear. He clarified his remarks later. He made it very clear. Even in his first comments, he said, ‘I’d do both.’ He said he’d call the FBI.”
Except that’s … not what Trump said. He said he might call the FBI if he felt something was “wrong.” He later cleaned that up, but his initial comments were clear that he didn’t think you call the FBI for stuff like that.
When Wallace pointed that out and called it a walk-back, Pompeo again disagreed with what is plain reality. “He didn’t walk it back, Chris.” Then Pompeo concluded with this: “I have nothing further to add. I came on to talk about foreign policy, and I think [this is] the third time you’ve asked me about a Washington piece of silliness.”
It was merely the latest example of Pompeo going on offense against such “silliness” — despite the questions clearly being substantiated by the behavior of his boss, Trump.
Last month, in another interview with Wallace, Pompeo took issue with Wallace asking him about why Trump hadn’t gotten tougher with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has repeatedly declined to judge harshly for Russia’s 2016 interference. “The administration that has been tougher on Russia than any of its predecessors, and yet you continue to be fixated on something that Robert Mueller wrote down,” Pompeo said, referring to the former special counsel.
The same day, Pompeo jousted with another Sunday show host, CBS News’s Margaret Brennan. When Pompeo said China was holding a million Chinese Muslims in “reeducation camps,” Brennan noted that the Defense Department had put the number as high as 3 million and called them “concentration camps.” Asked about the discrepancy, Pompeo implored her: “Don’t play ticky-tack. There’s no discrepancy.” There was; in fact, China complained about the use of the phrase “concentration camps,” so Pompeo’s choice of words was important.
Pompeo’s ire has also been directed at members of Congress who ask him the wrong questions. When Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) asked about Trump’s affection for Kim Jong Un and noted that the North Korean leader presided over human rights abuses including American Otto Warmbier’s death, Pompeo responded: “Sir, don’t make this a political football. It’s inappropriate. That’s inappropriate to do.”
In July 2018, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked Pompeo whether he knew what Trump and Putin talked about during their private meeting in Helsinki. “The predicate of your question implied that there was something improper about having a one-on-one conversation,” Pompeo informed him.
When asked in May 2018 about whether Trump declining to release his tax returns could obscure potential foreign conflicts, Pompeo couldn’t even countenance the possibility. “Senator, I find that question bizarre,” he said.
When a reporter asked him in June 2018 why a joint statement with Kim hadn’t included a requirement that North Korea’s denuclearization be verified and irreversible — despite Trump saying that was part of the agreement — Pompeo declared it “insulting and ridiculous and frankly ludicrous.”
“Don’t say silly things,” he said. “No, don’t. It’s not productive.”
Update: Here’s another example involving The Washington Post’s John Hudson, whom Pompeo accused of blaming the crisis in Venezuela on the United States. “You shouldn’t ask questions like that,” he instructed Hudson.
And in February, Pompeo was asked whether the CIA’s assessment that Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman was responsible for reporter Jamal Khashoggi’s killing was sufficient to take action against him. Pompeo bristled: “You can ask this question 57 times, 57 different ways. I’m going to give you the same answer.” None of those answers responded directly to the question.
None of these issues are trifles, and none of the questions were as ridiculous as Pompeo pretended. Just about all of them had to do with something Trump did or said that was inconsistent or raised valid questions about official U.S. policy.
Pompeo may not want to take hard-and-fast positions on these issues, which is understandable from a top diplomat. But better than just about anything else, his combative responses to very valid questions reaffirm just how difficult Trump makes his job. Pompeo, it seems, would often just rather not try to account for Trump’s conduct than say something that would raise his boss’s ire.