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On the road to swagger with Mike Pompeo: A year defending Trump’s worldview

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as President Trump talks with Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, during a meeting in the Oval Office on Feb. 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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When Mike Pompeo became secretary of state a year ago, the State Department was broken and shellshocked.

It was hemorrhaging senior diplomats, and many of those who stayed feared retaliation for their work in the Obama administration.

On his first day in the building, Pompeo stood on the lobby staircase where incoming secretaries traditionally address employees and promised to restore the department’s “swagger.”

On Friday, Pompeo will return to the staircase to mark the accomplishments of the last 12 months and give an anniversary pep talk about the road to swagger. In a nutshell, he defines it as teamwork that produces world-class policies that deliver value to the president.

“We’ll roll out on Friday the very beginnings of this understanding that matches swagger, what we’ll call the ethos of the 21st-century diplomat,” Pompeo said in an interview. “And it walks through the work that we do and why we do it and why it’s important for each individual here to be part of that. I think we’ve made a lot of progress on that.”

A year in, Pompeo is credited with pulling State Department morale out of the abyss. Though many senior positions remain vacant, his decision to lift a hiring freeze has paved the way for hundreds of new entry-level and mid-level employees. By the end of the year, Pompeo predicts, more Foreign Service officers will be in place than ever before.

As a diplomat, he has positioned himself as the face and voice of President Trump’s nationalistic worldview, laid out in several blunt speeches that have rattled the foreign policy establishment. Pompeo has taken charge of navigating complex pressure campaigns on Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, even while defending U.S. ties with Saudi Arabia after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But some question the degree to which Pompeo is helping shape foreign policy, finding him more of an explainer-in-chief for an un­or­tho­dox president and his “America First” agenda.

Where his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, fought to bat down many ideas emanating from the White House, Pompeo has made clear that he and the State Department are there to advance the president’s agenda.

“I believe in his own mind, his goal is to show the president that the State Department adds value to what he’s trying to accomplish,” said a former diplomat, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be more frank about internal conversations they have had with Pompeo or his inner circle. “And that’s good. Because the State Department still has a bull’s eye painted on it, but it’s not as bright and flashing as it was before.”

'Meet with Mike'

While Tillerson was perceived as aloof, Pompeo has shown an appreciation for the value of small gestures.

He holds periodic “Meet with Mike” town halls and videotapes “Miles with Mike” accounts of trips that have taken him to 35 countries. He visits embassies for “meet and greets,” routine stops Tillerson sometimes skipped. Pompeo’s wife, Susan, is honorary chairman of an association of Foreign Service families.

Pompeo has also distinguished himself from Tillerson by making savvy appointments, such as naming experienced diplomats as envoys to hotspots like Syria, North Korea and Afghanistan.

But veteran diplomats still are leaving. Some disagree with the administration’s foreign policy. Others have resigned because they find their career paths blocked, with half the ambassadorships filled by political appointees, up from the traditional 30 percent.

“Our senior leaders who are left no longer feel like endangered species,” said a senior diplomat. “But when positions are left vacant and you’re left sitting in a broom closet, life is short and you move on.”

Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said Pompeo has made a strong start in a difficult situation not of his own making.

“It’s pretty easy to get a boost in morale when your first action is to stop the beating,” he said. “I give him a lot of credit for trying. But he has to work inside an administration that shows essentially a lot of contempt for professional federal workers.”

Diplomatically, Pompeo has been at the center of the biggest foreign policy dilemmas facing the administration.

On negotiations with North Korea, he said, “We’ve made more progress diplomatically than at any time.”

Pompeo said the sanctions the United States imposed on Iran after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal have changed Iran’s trajectory.

“We inherited an Iran that was launching missiles at a rate that was unheard of,” he said. “We inherited an Iran that was on a permanent pathway to a nuclear weapons system and we inherited an Iran that had an economy that was growing — the growing economy that is deeply tied to its capacity to spread terror around the world. We reversed every one of those. That’s an enormous accomplishment.”

But many former diplomats and scholars suspect Pompeo is hamstrung by working for a president who weighs in on foreign policy in capricious bursts of 280 characters and displays little respect for those who challenge him.

“Pompeo has managed to stay in the game,” said Aaron David Miller, who advised Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. “In Trumpland, that’s no small accomplishment.

“He’s a Trump whisperer. Great. He owns some core issues. Great. The question is, what can he do about it? That requires more than just whispering. It requires selling the president on an effective strategy for some very difficult problems.”

Pompeo rejects the notion that he is not deeply involved in developing foreign policy.

“I think I’ve shaped almost all of President Trump’s foreign policy,” he said. “He’s the president. And it’s not just me. It’s not a singular task. It is the State Department’s task. I think the work that we’ve done, our team has done has provided really sound option sets for the president, and in every theater.”

Pompeo said it’s his job to explain U.S. policies — meaning, Trump’s policies — to the world.

“I think every secretary of state has done that, right?” he said. “One of their tasks is to not only lead and shape that policy and work for their president to achieve that president’s objectives, which I surely do, trying to make sure that the president and I are locked in on our foreign policy objectives in every element of this. But it’s also the task to explain to the world where appropriate, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing and this is why we’re doing this,’ how it’s connected to President Trump’s objectives. So I certainly have that role, as well.”

'Just so you know'

Pompeo bristles at outside criticism, particularly when it comes from former diplomats.

“Yes, because my team understands what we’re trying to do,” he said. “And formers don’t care for President Trump very much.”

He also said he has never been caught unawares by what appear to be abrupt foreign policy shifts by Trump. Last month, Trump canceled a just-announced round of sanctions on North Korea. Last week, he praised a renegade Libyan general days after Pompeo criticized him.

Pompeo said he “can’t think of a time” when he was surprised, then slammed news reports saying so:

“You all say, ‘Oh my goodness, the president made an announcement, it was spur of the moment, it was off the cuff.’ And I’m deeply aware of conversations going on, sometimes for a year. Write what you will. You’re free to be inaccurate.”

Disdain is not an infrequent note in Pompeo’s repertoire, and reporters aren’t the only targets.

He has accused Congress of “caterwauling.” He often rebukes President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies, particularly on the Iran agreement. He blames Democrats for many things, particularly stonewalling confirmations. At a speech in Brussels, home to NATO and the European Union, Pompeo was greeted by silence as he extolled national sovereignty over multinational institutions and criticized the “bureaucrats here in Brussels.”

“The secretary’s Brussels speech was a low-water mark,” said Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs, who otherwise admires Pompeo for boosting State Department morale and his tough negotiating tactics with North Korea.

But Pompeo brushes off suggestions that he can be brusque and undiplomatic.

“I am executing President Trump’s foreign policy,” he said. “Shaping it, helping him, trying to deliver best-in-class ideas to the president, so that we have good option sets for him in every dimension. I also have the obligation to explain it. And oftentimes that means talking about views that others have. And explaining why those views don’t make sense or aren’t best-in-class ideas.”

“So that’s what I’ve tried to do and I’ll keep doing it,” he said. “Just so you know.”