But focusing on those two quotes does the piece and its author, Susan Glasser, a disservice. Around those two narrative-building elements is a nuanced, thoughtful piece about the game Pompeo is playing with Trump. And as someone who has regularly spotlighted Pompeo’s sycophancy and willingness to pretend for Trump that up is down, I think it raises important questions.
Throughout the piece, Pompeo is described not as a hapless yes-man but, instead, as one of the smartest members of the president’s inner circle. He’s painted as a man so adept at playing “the Game” that he has navigated his own past comments about Trump and a worldview that departs from Trump’s in significant ways to become the president’s longest-lasting and perhaps most influential national security aide.
Even critics praise his remarkable political skills.
“Pompeo’s singular ability is in navigating power,” says Raj Goyle, the Democrat he beat for his Kansas U.S. House seat in 2010 — and against whom Pompeo ran a nasty race. “On that I give him massive respect: the way he mapped Wichita power, the way he mapped D.C. power, the way he mapped Trump.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) calls Pompeo “very bright, very politically shrewd,” “with a certain pugnacious quality to his persona.” Foreign policy analyst Ian Bremmer says Pompeo has “in a sense become the real adult in the room. It is less the case than he would like, but vastly more the case than anyone else.”
The dilemma raised by Pompeo is a familiar one in Trumpworld, but it’s perhaps most pronounced — and consequential — in his case: What is the balance between serving Trump, managing him and enabling him?
It’s a balance we dealt with after that New York Times op-ed by a still-unnamed senior administration official, whom some critics said should have resigned rather than trying to, in the author’s estimation, salvage a bad situation from the inside. It’s one that’s even more important today, as internal critics are pushed out and the pool of replacements inevitably veers toward yes-men and -women (because, after all, who else would want to put up with all that?).
And perhaps the defining moment in that evolution, as Glasser notes, was Trump’s hastily announced Syria withdrawal. That was the moment at which Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — perhaps the most respected man in the administration — finally cut bait. It was also a highly symbolic moment for Pompeo, who in contrast with Mattis defended a decision he disagreed with.
Glasser puts it well in the piece’s penultimate paragraph:
This behavior is the reason that Pompeo has succeeded in becoming the lone survivor of Trump’s original national-security team. At the start of his Administration, the President had bragged about “my generals.” But, now that he has pushed out the actual generals who served as his chief of staff, his national-security adviser, and his Defense Secretary, it seems clear that Trump was uncomfortable with such leaders, and rejected their habits of command and independent thinking.
Then Glasser adds, “He wanted a Mike Pompeo, not a Jim Mattis, a captain trained to follow orders, not a general used to giving them.”
Beautifully put. But as with everyone in politics, we shouldn’t just admire someone because they’re good at playing a difficult game; we should ask what they get out of it. If Pompeo is doing this because of raw ambition — because he wants to be president or something like that — he’s playing a dangerous game as the nation’s top diplomat. If he’s doing it because he feels he can keep righting what has become an increasingly rickety foreign policy ship, then that could be seen as even admirable — especially given that he’s often lighting his own credibility on fire.
The Syria withdrawal is perhaps an example of when that approach can and does work. Despite Mattis resigning over it, Trump later backed off his initial decision to withdraw completely. Pompeo got something he wanted — albeit long after all eyes were trained on the internal drama of it all — by using the kid-gloves approach.
On the flip side, though, Trump is rewriting the rules of the presidency in precisely some of the ways Pompeo warned about. Trump has warmed to authoritarians and authoritarianism, similar to Pompeo’s warnings. Shortly before becoming Trump’s pick for CIA director, Pompeo tweeted that Trump should “make the undemocratic practice of executive orders a thing of the past;” Trump has instead taken it to new heights. The secretary of state who once assured that soldiers “don’t swear an allegiance to President Trump or any other President; they take an oath to defend our Constitution” has shown an almost-unmatched allegiance to Trump.
Some in the foreign policy establishment apparently want to believe it could all be for the best — that Pompeo can, on balance, be a force for good. But we’ve seen their hopes dashed when it comes to another man in whom they invested some wishful thinking, Attorney General William P. Barr.
Pompeo might be the other most consequential man in Trump’s Cabinet. And the narrative of his tenure is very much up in the air — and dependent upon the man he once derided as a dangerous commander in chief.