The Slatest

Is Pompeo Really More Trumpish Than Tillerson?

Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill February 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. The intelligence chiefs were called to testify to the committee about 'world wide threats.'
CIA Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Feb. 13 in Washington.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s decision to fire Rex Tillerson was reportedly motivated by his long-simmering frustrations with a secretary of state he saw as “too establishment” in his thinking, and Trump’s belief that his views line up better with those of Tillerson’s replacement, CIA Director Mike Pompeo. The New York Times reports:

Mr. Pompeo, a West Point graduate best known for savaging Hillary Clinton’s response to the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of state, has called for the Iran nuclear agreement to be ripped up, played down talk of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and suggested that regime change in North Korea would be a welcome development.

Sure, when it comes to the Iran deal, which Trump specifically mentioned during his statement, Pompeo will indeed be a change. In internal administration debates, he has reportedly pushed, alongside U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, for Trump not to certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, even though Pompeo’s own agency has concluded that Iran is complying. He has compared Iran’s regional ambitions to those of ISIS.

But on other hot-button issues, there may be less daylight between Pompeo and Tillerson than it initially appears. On Jerusalem, for instance, CNN reported in March that Pompeo had joined with Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis in urging the president not to upset the status quo by recognizing the city as the capital of Israel.

Despite the fears of many, given Trump’s pro-torture campaign rhetoric, there have been no moves to reinstate George W. Bush–era interrogation techniques while Pompeo has been at Langley (not publicly, anyway), and he’s continued to maintain that the methods currently permitted by the Army Field Manual are adequate. (His successor as CIA director may feel differently.)

His comments about “regime change” in North Korea have also been somewhat overblown. Pompeo did say, in a conversation at the Aspen Security Forum moderated by the New York Times’ Bret Stephens last July, that it would be good to “separate” leader Kim Jong-un from his country’s nuclear capacity and that the North Korean people “would love to see him go as well.” Given the North Korean regime’s well-documented paranoia about invasion, the CIA director should probably not be saying this out loud. But Pompeo also clarified at the same event that he was not talking about something the CIA was working “to make happen tomorrow,” but was referring to enlisting other countries in the region to amp up pressure on Kim’s regime. It’s more likely he was talking about a desired outcome than a poisoned cigar scenario. And the United States’ covert action against North Korea’s weapons program certainly didn’t begin with him anyway.

At times, Pompeo’s views on North Korea have actually seemed more moderate than the administration’s, such as when he suggested to an audience at AEI in January that he would consider it a victory to keep North Korea “several months away” from being able to “hold America at risk” with nuclear-tipped missiles—a much more modest goal than the full denuclearization promised by the president.

In any event, given that Trump ironically decided to sit down with Kim Jong-un just before firing Tillerson, who’s been pushing for talks for months, it’s not clear that Pompeo’s supposedly more “hawkish” views are actually closer to the president’s current position.

There are a number of areas where the more “establishment” voices on Trump’s team—notably Mattis and national security adviser/dead man walking H.R. McMaster—are the ones advocating more hawkish positions. From all indications, Pompeo seems likely to fall in line with them. Pompeo reportedly played a key role in Trump’s decision to launch airstrikes to punish Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons use last year, a decision cheered by much of the U.S. national security establishment (and a reversal of Trump’s stance on Syria during his campaign). Pompeo has also presided over a major expansion of CIA operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan—a conflict about which Trump has been much more skeptical than his generals.

As for Russia, Pompeo has been as hawkish as anyone, as both a congressman and CIA director, when it comes to pushing back against Vladimir Putin’s actions in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere.

On the specific question of election meddling, Pompeo was rebuked for saying last October that the intelligence community had assessed that “the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” In fact, the report in question did not make an assessment on whether the outcome had been affected, and the CIA walked back Pompeo’s assertion.

On the other hand, Pompeo has consistently maintained that Russian interference did take place, was part of an overall strategy to undermine the United States, and that this interference is likely to happen again in the 2018 midterm elections. He has described WikiLeaks, which Trump repeatedly praised during his campaign, as a “hostile intelligence service.” So it’s a stretch to equate his stance on this to Trump’s.

The differences between Tillerson and Pompeo seem to have less to do with what they believe than with how they act. As a gruff ex-military guy, Pompeo fits the mold of who Trump likes to have on his national security team. (Though unlike his colleagues Mattis, McMaster, and John Kelly, he was only a captain, not a general.) Aides tell the Times that Trump has “come to value Mr. Pompeo’s pungent opinions and hard-charging style during his presidential daily briefings.”

Pompeo also seems more likely to be a team player than Tillerson was. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Tillerson’s tenure is that he never seemed to care much what Trump (or anyone) thought about him and had little interest in the obsequious displays of loyalty that Trump craves. Pompeo was a deeply partisan figure before he had his current job and has seemed to work hard both to preserve his standing in the national security establishment and to protect his boss from criticism—his statement defending the outcome of the election being the clearest example.

Pompeo’s tough-talking partisan style, not his views on any issue, probably got him the job. But sooner or later, the new secretary of state may have to either start adjusting those views to fit Trump’s demands or find himself facing similar frustrations as his predecessor.