The Skinny on Donald Trump's New Top Diplomat: Mike Pompeo
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because he’s America’s new representative to the globe.
By Daniel Malloy
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
In many ways, Mike Pompeo is a kindred spirit to President Donald Trump. And on Tuesday morning, the former CEO with a rabble-rousing mind-set went from director of the Central Intelligence Agency to newly appointed secretary of state — in the blink of a tweet.
Here’s what you need to know about America’s next chief diplomat.
A native of Orange County, California, Pompeo, 54, finished first in his class at West Point in 1986. He served as an Army officer for five years before leaving for Harvard Law School. Pompeo practiced law in Kansas and then founded manufacturer Thayer Aerospace, for which he served as CEO for more than a decade, before going into the oil business. Once Pompeo shifted his focus to politics, “he came in with credibility” because of his business experience, friend Jon Rolph, president of a local restaurant management company, tells OZY. But “he didn’t come in with a lot of hubris. There was way more humility, and so he was very relatable in that way.”
Pompeo was elected to Congress in the Tea Party wave of 2010 and was closely tied to the Koch Brothers, given that he represented the billionaire megadonors’ hometown of Wichita, Kansas. A Koch Industries subsidiary had invested in Thayer Aerospace and the Kochs heavily backed his campaign. Pompeo was known for sharp conservative views. “He was extreme. He was provocative. In the days before [Trump], he would have been considered rude or abrasive,” former Rep. John Tierney, a Massachusetts Democrat, tells OZY. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Pompeo said on the House floor that American Muslims were “potentially complicit” and falsely accused Muslim groups of not condemning terrorism.
But former Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston found Pompeo to be uncommonly smart and knowledgeable on issues, rather than reliant on staff, and willing to show flexibility when necessary. Unlike some hard-right members who frustrate House GOP leaders, Pompeo wasn’t part of “the holier-than-thou caucuses of purity,” Kingston tells OZY.
Pompeo was privy to the nation’s deepest secrets on the House Intelligence Committee and participated in the special committee to investigate the Benghazi attack, where he was one of Hillary Clinton’s most prominent interrogators. During the 2016 campaign, he cheered the release of hacked Democratic Party emails by Wikileaks, though after becoming CIA director he called Wikileaks “a hostile intelligence service.”
Pompeo is known for being more of a hawk on Russia than Trump. But Trump picked Pompeo to run the CIA, and Pompeo reportedly built rapport with his new boss via daily intelligence briefings. As Trump said Tuesday of Pompeo: “We’re always on the same wavelength.” This stands in contrast to Tillerson, who often disagreed with Trump and reportedly called him a “moron” in private. Kingston says Pompeo has risen in Trump’s eyes by not blundering into a media scandal — as several cabinet members have done — and by keeping a low public profile. “He’s not going to be a yes-man,” Kingston says. “But you might not ever know it.”
Assuming he’s confirmed by the Senate — he garnered 66 votes for the CIA post — Pompeo will likely be more in sync with Trump when confronting the global scene. He, like the president, wants to shred the nuclear deal with Iran. Pompeo has advocated a more hard-line stance toward North Korea as the country stepped up its weapons program. Now Trump says he will meet with Kim Jong Un in the coming months, and Pompeo’s department will shape the encounter. “This president is inclined to be an agitator,” says Tierney, now executive director of the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation. “Now he’s got an aggressive fellow spirit in there.” World, get ready.
James Watkins contributed to this report.
Correction: The original version of this report incorrectly stated that Mike Pompeo served in the Gulf War.