I’m not sure it was such a walk-back. It’s also important to remember that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, was unambiguous Monday. “I will stand by the intelligence I saw,” Milley said. “That was compelling. It was imminent. It was very, very clear in scale, scope.” And Tuesday, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said it was “a matter days, certainly no more than weeks.”
But as Pompeo takes a lead in messaging on the Iran situation, his history stalks him. And it’s a history replete with bending the facts to suit his boss, President Trump. At a time when trust in the administration is paramount because of the stakes, Pompeo is an imperfect messenger taking the lead for a notoriously untruthful president.
Pompeo’s factual malleability dates back to his time as CIA director, when he stated that Russian interference “did not affect the outcome of the election.” That wasn’t a conclusion, mind you, of the intelligence community that Pompeo led — it explicitly said it was not making such a determination, in fact — but it was a Trump talking point that many top administration officials wound up using. That the CIA director himself would misstate the existing intelligence, though, was particularly astounding.
After the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, the intelligence community concluded with “high confidence” that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered it, according to Post reporting. But at a congressional hearing, Pompeo again toed the line for a president who was loath to hold the Saudis accountable. Pompeo said there was “no direct reporting” connecting the crown prince to the murder and declined to say anything else. It was perhaps technically true but also a highly selective disclosure.
Pompeo’s comments about Iran have also been at issue. The New York Times fact-checked a speech he gave about Iran in 2018 and found numerous omissions and plenty of conjecture. He claimed in September that Iran said it was “going to continue to do more research and development on their nuclear weapon systems,” even though Iran said no such thing.
Belligerence in the face of such questions has been Pompeo’s calling card. He’ll often be asked to account for the things Trump says and pretend that the mere question is ludicrous. That has been the case with Trump saying he might accept foreign help in an election, with Trump’s suggestions that Russia didn’t interfere in 2016 and with Trump’s comments about what North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed to that wasn’t put in writing.
It was even the case Tuesday. After Trump threatened this weekend to attack Iranian cultural sites, which could be a war crime, Pompeo played down the possibility of any illegal strikes Sunday morning, only to have Trump double down later in the day. NBC’s Andrea Mitchell asked Pompeo whether he would prevent Trump from taking such a step, and Pompeo pretended the question was ridiculous.
“You’re not really wondering, Andrea,” he said, adding: “I was unambiguous on Sunday. It is completely consistent with what the president has said.”
Except it’s not. And the fact that Pompeo insists it is — alongside all these other flaps — makes it difficult to take him at face value. Now is the time when something like that matters most. When Pompeo vouches for Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani, we need to believe that he’s not using a word like “imminent,” whose meaning is already pretty nebulous, loosely in an effort to vouch for Trump. That may not ultimately be what happened here, but given all that we know, it’s certainly not a ridiculous question.