Mike Pompeo, former U.S. secretary of state, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., on Friday. (Al Drago/Bloomberg)
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This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference has been a much lower-profile affair than usual, as many big names opted to skip the festivities. But it’s still a significant stage on which ambitious Republicans can test their message in front of the right wing of the right wing.

And Mike Pompeo tested quite a message Friday.

“Don’t hand that government more power under the guise of conservatism,” the likely GOP presidential contender and former secretary of state said. “We shouldn’t look for larger-than-life personalities, but rather we should fight power in the rooms like this one.”

Pompeo continued: “We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics — those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality. … We can’t shift blame to others, but must accept the responsibility that comes to those of us who step forward and lead.”

Former Trump cabinet official Mike Pompeo on March 3 subtly criticized former president Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Video: The Washington Post)

In case it isn’t obvious, Pompeo is talking about his former boss, Donald Trump.

Pompeo avoids naming names so he can have plausible deniability and potentially avoid a backlash, as he and others are wont to do, especially in Trump’s case. But there is no bigger “celebrity leader” or larger personality in modern American politics than Trump. It’s also apparent that Pompeo was talking about Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election when he said “refuse to acknowledge reality.”

A few thoughts.

The first is that to the extent Pompeo is going to go down that latter path, he doesn’t exactly do so from the highest of roads.

Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 election on Nov. 7. Three days later, with Trump crying foul and falsely claiming he won, Pompeo was asked about how the State Department would transition under such a situation. “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” he quipped.

Pompeo then spoke as if the election results were truly in doubt, even though they really weren’t. When his statement blew up, Fox News asked Pompeo if he had been serious, and he demurred. The display seemed to please Trump, who promoted Pompeo’s comments and said, “That’s why Mike was number one in his class at West Point!”

And in the weeks afterward, it’s not as if Pompeo publicly emphasized the reality of the situation. He very much slipped into the background.

That aside — and even considering the lack of name-naming — Pompeo’s dig seems to be a significant statement of intent.

Thus far, most attacks on Trump from his fellow 2024 candidates have focused on his poor electoral record in 2018, 2020 and then 2022. That angle of attack makes an argument for turning the page, without getting too personal. It’s just business, these rivals could argue.

Pompeo’s line, though, is unusually personal. Not only does he diminish Trump as a “celebrity,” he alludes to his “fragile ego.” Trump was known for blaming pretty much everything on everyone else, even when he himself hired the people in question. And Pompeo’s attack matches some editorializing from conservative outlets that have argued for moving on from Trump, like the New York Post.

“The Groypers, the Proud Boys — Trump won’t denounce any of them,” its editorial board wrote in November after Trump met with Ye and white nationalist Nick Fuentes. “They like him, so how bad can they be? And so — again — Trump puts his own ego before common sense, before tolerance, before judgment, before country.”

With his line about not giving the government “more power under the guise of conservatism,” Pompeo also seemed to be previewing a potential line to be used against not just Trump, but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). That line echoes some criticisms of DeSantis from potential 2024 candidates, who have suggested that the governor went too far in wielding government power to combat “woke” entities such as Disney.

But it was obviously mostly about Trump. (Pompeo at another point cited how the “Trump administration, the administration I served, added $8 trillion in new debt. This is indecent and can’t continue.”)

Pompeo is suggesting Trump is not just a loser — he mentioned that, too, obliquely of course — but also he’s unserious, not sufficiently conservative and somewhat frivolous. And to the extent Pompeo’s prepared to follow through on making such arguments, the true 2024 debate can apparently begin.