Trump’s foray to Foggy Bottom was more than theater for the foreign policy establishment. It signaled to foreign governments and State Department employees that the two men share a personal rapport and common purpose that was sometimes lacking under Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson. And that will help solidify Pompeo’s position as the administration’s chief voice on foreign policy.
The ceremony capped a week of symbolic steps in which Pompeo staked out his position to important constituencies and started establishing a different tone than the one left behind by Tillerson, whom Trump fired in mid-March.
Within an hour of his official swearing-in at the Supreme Court a week ago, Pompeo was en route to Europe and the Middle East to talk with key allies.
When he arrived at the State Department on Tuesday for introductory remarks to employees, Pompeo spoke of feeling humbled in the midst of great American patriots, a welcome characterization for employees who have felt overlooked and scorned by the administration. Within a few hours, Pompeo lifted a hiring freeze that Tillerson had imposed on relatives of employees posted overseas.
But it was the often prickly relationship between Tillerson and Trump that did the former secretary of state the most harm and eventually brought his abrupt exit. As their policy disagreements became well known, some foreign governments were uncertain whether Tillerson truly spoke on behalf of the president. Trump sometimes undercut Tillerson publicly, such as the time he told the diplomat not to waste his time putting diplomatic pressure on North Korea.
By giving the State Department the cold shoulder during Tillerson’s 14 months in office, Trump only emphasized the distance between himself and his top diplomat. In contrast, President Barack Obama came to the State Department, which is barely one mile from the White House, on his third day in office in 2009.
In one short ceremony, Trump erased any concerns about his relationship with his top diplomat.
As applause filled the air, Trump said: “I must say, that’s more spirit than I’ve heard from the State Department in a long time. Many years. We can say many years, maybe many decades.”
Pompeo thanked Trump for trusting him to deal with a “sobering” variety of threats to U.S. security and vowed to be “unrelenting” in meeting them.
“We are but 15 months in this administration,” Pompeo said, “and we have already made outstanding progress by speaking the truth about the challenges we face, by confronting them head on, but partnering with strong nations to make America and the world more prosperous and secure.”
When he was still director of the CIA, Pompeo traveled to North Korea to meet with its leader, Kim Jong Un. Pompeo said North Korea must commit itself to dismantling its weapons program, though he said the efforts to negotiate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula were still “in the beginning stages” and the outcome is unknown.
“We are committed to the permanent, verifiable, irreversible dismantling of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program and to do so without delay,” Pompeo said.