Who is Mike Pompeo?

Rex Tillerson was an awful Secretary of State who simply had to go, It's quite possible his successor will be an even greater disaster.

A January profile of the presumptive next Secretary of State in BusinessWeek titled “Mike Pompeo Is the Anti-Tillerson” provides some clues.

As much as anyone in the administration, Pompeo has mastered the art of communicating with this president. He’s one of the first people in the Oval Office each morning when he shows up to deliver Trump the daily intelligence briefing. By most accounts, this is one of the highlights of the president’s day. Not only does Trump get details of the country’s most secretive operations, he gets them in bite-sized, boiled-down charts and graphics designed to maximize the attention of a famously fickle president.

It’s unusual for the CIA director himself to deliver the briefing every day, yet by doing so, Pompeo has forged a strong personal connection to Trump and also helped bridge what could’ve been a dangerous gap between the White House and the intelligence community. Trump came into office deeply skeptical of U.S. intelligence agencies, going so far as to accuse the CIA of being the source of leaks against him after the election. “It’s hard to say it’s not a success that the CIA director has been able to maintain a daily briefing relationship when it looked like all signs were in the other direction,” says David Priess, a former CIA officer and author of a book on presidents’ intelligence briefings, The President’s Book of Secrets.

Pompeo, 54, is seen as a potential successor to Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. A plan to make Pompeo the country’s top diplomat has been under debate since at least September, according to one administration official who says White House staff and Tillerson’s inner circle all but stopped talking last summer.


In Pompeo, Trump in many ways has found his mirror image, someone who shares his penchant for being combative and opinionated. Before being tapped to run the CIA, Pompeo spent six years as a Republican representative from Kansas. Even among the first-time representatives who helped the GOP take over the House as part of the 2010 Tea Party wave, he stood out as a strident critic of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. He’s perhaps best known for his role castigating Hillary Clinton’s response to the 2012 Benghazi attacks. Pompeo ended up drafting his own conclusions separate from the findings of the House Intelligence Committee’s Republican majority. He was also one of the strongest critics of the Iran nuclear deal. “Pompeo has a sort of hard-line approach on foreign policy that’s quite black and white, and that’s also how Trump sees the world,” says Ilan Goldenberg, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who worked at the State Department under then-Secretary John Kerry. “This is where Pompeo has really been able to endear himself to Trump.”

Pompeo also has the kind of résumé Trump loves to brag about: West Point graduate, U.S. Army veteran, Harvard-trained lawyer, and business owner. In 2006, Pompeo sold the manufacturing company he’d founded, Thayer Aerospace. In an administration filled with multimillionaires and billionaires, he’s an exception. His financial disclosure ran to just eight pages, compared with Tillerson’s 38-page disclosure that included details of his $180 million retirement package from Exxon Mobil Corp.

While Tillerson has gained a reputation for being isolated and aloof at the State Department, Pompeo holds monthly “Meet With Mike” sessions where CIA officers shoot him questions in an open setting. And while Tillerson has in many ways rolled back the State Department’s global presence and centralized its decision-making, Pompeo has empowered CIA staffers. Field officers are encouraged to “carry out more aggressive, agile operations,” according to a CIA spokesman. Pompeo has also moved officers out of Washington and into remote areas and pushed decision-making down the chain of command.

Kansas Republicans have moved far to the right compared to the day of Bob Dole and Nancy Kassebaum. And, as Roy Moore has demonstrated, being a West Point graduate doesn’t guarantee that someone isn’t a kook. His role in flogging the Benghazi nonsense is troubling. Still, though, he’s a stronger manager than Tillerson. While you’d think his having risen to the top of ExxonMobile would have, if nothing else, made him a competent executive, he was lousy at managing up and down, alienating not only the President but his entire agency.

But Pompeo has some worrisome traits:

Yet not everything he’s done has been well-received inside the CIA. Pompeo’s decision to have the agency’s counterintelligence unit report directly to him while multiple parts of the government are investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign carried political overtones. It also raised questions about whether he could influence intelligence that the CIA was sharing with the FBI or congressional committees. According to a CIA spokesman, Pompeo’s decision was aimed at stopping the “dangerous leaks and insider threats” that he saw emanating from the agency when he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Pompeo’s alignment with Trump and outspokenness on sensitive policy issues have raised questions among current and former CIA staffers: Instead of what’s supported by the agency’s conclusions, they wonder if the director is pursuing policies and making recommendations that will please the White House, former intelligence officers say. Some analysts inside the CIA are dispirited that Pompeo has policy preferences and isn’t valuing their unbiased analysis, according to a former intelligence official, who says officers have described experiencing “deja vu” of the Iraq War, only this time they’re being asked leading questions about Iran and Russia. While those on the operational side of the agency have been empowered, some are concerned about chatter of reviving torture or other controversial programs in place during the Bush administration, the former official says.

While Tillerson’s close relationship with Vladimir Putin concerned many, he was actually rather stalwart—at least by the standards of the Trump administration—in denouncing that regime’s excesses. Pompeo . . . not so much.

There are also reports of curious meetings Pompeo has held at the CIA, including with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, and William Binney, a former National Security Agency whistleblower who claims someone with access to the Democratic National Committee leaked its data rather than Russian hackers. Although Pompeo isn’t the first politician to hold the job, he’s “probably the most political CIA director that we’ve had,” says Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who’s followed Pompeo’s career. “He’s made statements politically in defense of Trump that previous CIA directors might not have made.”

That includes standing by the president when it comes to Russia. In October, Pompeo caused a stir when he said the intelligence community’s assessment of Russian meddling in the 2016 election was that it “did not affect the outcome of the election.” Yet the report released by intelligence agencies in January 2017 explicitly said that it “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome.” Pompeo subsequently clarified his remarks. In a Dec. 18 call to Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin thanked the CIA for information that led to the breakup of a suspected Islamic State cell. Following his conversation with Putin, Trump called Pompeo to congratulate him, the White House said.

It gets worse.  As Peter Beinart noted in a November essay at The Atlantic, “Mike Pompeo at State Would Enable Trump’s Worst Instincts.”

When the President of the United States retweets crude anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, a neo-fascist convicted for harassing Muslims on the street, it’s useful to have a secretary of state with a different point of view. And Rex Tillerson, for all his faults, does. Tillerson has declared that, “there’s a great deal that’s misunderstood about the Muslim world” and that “we need to put a lot more effort into understanding one another better.” He’s even ventured that “the president’s views” about Islam, perhaps with a nudge from him, “are going to continue to evolve.”

But they’re less likely to “evolve”—or be mitigated in any way—if Trump enacts the plan The New York Times describes, in which Tillerson is replaced early next year by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. That’s because Pompeo embraces anti-Muslim bigots, and defames Muslims, with almost as much gusto as Trump himself.

Among Fransen’s closest American analogues are Brigitte Gabriel and Frank Gaffney. Gabriel, who has said a “practicing Muslim, who believes in the teachings of the Koran, cannot be a loyal citizen to the United States of America,” runs ACT for America, an organization that scours textbooks in an effort to eliminate references that equate Islam with Judaism and Christianity, and urges its members to protest the sale of halal food. In 2016, Pompeo won ACT’s “highest honor,” the National Security Eagle Award. Gabriel has called him a “steadfast ally.”

Pompeo is also a steadfast ally of Frank Gaffney, President of the Center for Security Policy, who has argued that adherence to Islamic law—far from being protected by the First Amendment—should be considered “an impermissible act of sedition, which has to be prosecuted.” Pompeo spoke at the Center for Security Policy’s “Defeat Jihad” summit in 2015. And as a member of Congress, he appeared on Gaffney’s radio show over 20 times.

Listen to Pompeo and you hear echoes of Fransen, Gaffney, and Gabriel’s worldview. Like Gaffney and Gabriel, Pompeo repeatedly insinuated that President Obama preferred Islam—and maybe even ISIS—to Christianity and the United States. In a February 2015 interview, Gaffney asked Pompeo whether Obama has “kind of an affinity for, if not the violent beheading and crucifixions and slaying of Christians and all that, but at least for the cause for which these guys are engaged in such activities.” Pompeo’s response: “Frank, every place you stare at the president’s policies and statements, you see what you just described.” That December, a questioner—after accusing Obama of supporting Islamists in Egypt and Iran—told Pompeo, “I can’t think of anything where he’s been on our side.” Pompeo’s answer: “The data you point out is correct and I’m not afraid to talk about the data. The data is very clear. Every time there has been a conflict between the Christian West and the Islamic East the data points all point to a single direction”—to Obama’s disloyalty to Christianity and the United States.

There’s more to the piece, but you get the gist.

The bottom line is that, while Tillerson was an awful Secretary of State who simply had to go, it’s quite possible that Pompeo will be an even greater disaster.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    Trump fired Tillerson not for his manifest incompetence, but for his statement blaming Putin for the assassination in London. Putin picked Tillerson, Tillerson didn’t deliver sanctions relief and then had the nerve to back our greatest ally against the Russian thug, so Tillerson’s gone. My only surprise is that Trump didn’t name Devin Nunes or Dana Rohrabacher.

    Moral: You can call Trump a “fwcking moron” and survive. But don’t criticize Putin, that’s fatal.

  2. CSK says:

    Trump announced over this past weekend that he was going to follow his own instincts and not rely on staff for advice. Pompeo will be his yes man.

    Tillerson’s is just the first head to roll.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds: Maybe. We’re getting conflicting reports.

  4. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Trump just needs to appoint Lavrov and cut out the middleman.

  5. teve tory says:

    Journalists on Twitter are saying that their sources in the State Department say Tillerson wasn’t fired on Friday, he read the Tweet like everybody else, and didn’t see it coming. If so, looks like Sarah Huckabee Sanders was trying to backdate the firing, so as to confuse that it was really about the Russia comments.

  6. CSK says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Kelly, Sessions, and McMaster are gone by week’s end.

  7. Lit3Bolt says:

    @teve tory:

    TV Pitch Guy: “What if we combined 1984 with Idiocracy…”

    Producer: “You’re fired. Too unrealistic.”

  8. JohnMcC says:

    A small thought: Sec’ty Pompeo would be 4th in line to the Presidency after his confirmation. After Speaker Ryan.

    We are sooooo screwed.

  9. James Joyner says:

    @JohnMcC: Well, fifth, after Senate President Pro Tempore Orrin Hatch. But, frankly, I’d take any of them over the guy currently in the Oval Office.

  10. CSK says:

    From what I’ve read, Pompeo is less enamored of Putin than is his boss. How’s that going to work out?

  11. grumpy realist says: