How Mike Pompeo Could Contain Trump’s Worst Instincts

And why Rex Tillerson couldn’t.

Mike Pompeo, Rex Tillerson.
Mike Pompeo and Rex Tillerson.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Leah Millis/Reuters.

On Tuesday, after 14 months of chaos and despair at the State Department, Rex Tillerson was fired by President Trump and replaced by Mike Pompeo, currently the director of the CIA.
Tillerson had run afoul of Trump for months; conversely, the hawkish Pompeo seems to have won over the president. To discuss what this means for the future of American foreign policy, I spoke by phone with Daniel W. Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to the Washington Post. In our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed whether Pompeo can contain Trump’s worst instincts, why Tillerson couldn’t, and how to rate appointees when the man they serve is Donald Trump.

Isaac Chotiner: I thought we would get this conversation in before we all die in a nuclear war.

Daniel W. Drezner: Sounds good.

You wrote something in a piece about all this that I wanted to follow up on: “This was an absolutely necessary move for Trump. The most important currency for a diplomat is their credibility. If they say something will happen and then they are overruled by their boss, it’s a problem.” My question is whether, as long as Trump is president, this is actually not the most important part of being a diplomat—that essentially no one will have the ear of the boss, or credibility for more than a short period of time, and so all sane people should want is someone who can put Band-Aids on things and, if it comes down to a Situation Room meeting, not give Trump crazy advice.

First of all, if you put a Band-Aid on something Trump does, Trump has made it very clear at this point that unless you have actually changed his mind, he is just going to rip it off a day later. I understand the impulse, but in some ways the choice—and it’s an unappetizing one for people who pay attention to foreign policy—is between someone who is so incompetent that even if their foreign policy instincts might be correct, they were going to have no influence whatsoever, versus someone clearly much more hawkish, and therefore might pursue policies that are more reckless, but might be within the realm of sanity to the point where they can check Trump’s absolute worst impulses, and will actually—because Trump trusts them more—[he will] potentially listen to them more.

So I guess the first-order question is whether Pompeo shares Trump’s worst impulses, and then the question is whether—in the areas he does not—he will be effective at checking them.

So the first one we don’t entirely know. Obviously, Pompeo is much more hawkish on, let’s say, Iran, than Tillerson ever was. What we don’t know yet is whether Pompeo will listen to experts on this issue. He is going to have to put his name to certain things, in terms of the [Iran deal]. It could very well mean we wind up exiting. But also as secretary of state it means Pompeo has to be concerned about whether exiting from the Iran deal is going to advance U.S. interests if, let’s say, the rest of the P5+1 refuses to follow.

But what does seem clear over the past year is that Pompeo has earned the trust of Trump. The currency of Trump’s trust is a rapidly depreciating one, particularly if you disagree with him. Pompeo hasn’t done that to the degree Tillerson did on, let’s say, Charlottesville or Qatar or, just yesterday, Russia. But Pompeo has said things at times that were somewhat at variance with Trump, for example with reference to Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, but that hasn’t undercut his standing with the president.

Tillerson has also had to speak publicly more, giving him more opportunities to piss Trump off. It’s the nature of the job.

Right, he could be in the same vice. But there’s another thing to consider: In the long term, you are correct. The more Pompeo disagrees with Trump, the more likely Trump will fire him. However, much in the same way that Kelly exerted far more power as chief of staff immediately after replacing Reince Priebus, you can argue that Pompeo will exert authority now. Even someone like Donald Trump doesn’t want to fire multiple secretaries of state within months of each other.

He doesn’t like to fire people. He didn’t want to fire Tillerson. I guess this goes to the definition of want.

Trump has a temper, does not like it when people disagree with him, and wants to get them out of the way. At the same time, he is highly conscious of public relations, and part of the reason that Kelly’s position seemed secure for so long was that even Trump recognized that having three chiefs of staff within the span of a year was not a good look.

Tillerson may have been the first secretary of state totally at war with the bureaucracy, but reading between the lines of your piece made me think you were suggesting that there was a hope Pompeo would respect the bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy could influence him in a positive way. Is that because that’s what normally happens?

Pompeo has the possibility, and let me stress the word possibility, of getting what I call the bad-boyfriend benefit from replacing Tillerson. Tillerson was such a disastrous secretary of state—you can see the evidence in senior people exiting, in the low morale in the remaining bureaucracy. All Pompeo has to do are a couple acts of decency or gestures toward the building. The big myth about Washington bureaucracies is that they are always implacably opposed to conservative political appointees. That’s not necessarily true. They genuinely want to serve at the pleasure of the president and at the pleasure of their department heads.
They just want to know what their job is supposed to be. And the problem with Tillerson is that he cut off the bureaucracy and would not talk to them at all.

All he has to do, and we don’t know that he will, is make feints in that direction, and he can improve morale, which means there will be reports about morale improving, which will be a windfall for Pompeo.

Last thing: Maybe this gets at why I am anxious—

There are really good reasons to be anxious. I don’t mean to suggest that everything is going to be fine but just that it is a more complicated picture than the idea that there is just going to be continued chaos.

I hear you and a lot of people saying Tillerson was the worst secretary of state ever, or a complete disaster at his job. You could lay out that case and I would agree with every specific point. But my fears and expectations are such that if we get through the next four years without a disastrous war, I will consider that a success. And so I am happy to take foreign policy appointees who are all “the worst ever” by some more objective criteria in terms of how they dealt with the president or the bureaucracy … if it means we don’t get into a disastrous war.

Those are not incorrect concerns, but the question you have to ask is, “Was Rex Tillerson ever going to be able to stop Trump from doing what he wanted to do?” And I think the answer was largely “No.” Trump overruled him on the Paris climate accords. He overruled him on the Saudi embargo of Qatar. He overruled him first on talking to North Korea, and then having a summit with North Korea. It’s one thing to say that Tillerson’s instincts were more mainstream than Trump’s. That’s true. But it is also useless if what Tillerson does has absolutely no influence whatsoever on the president.

The one way in which maybe it would matter would be if Trump was in a Cabinet meeting or a National Security Council meeting, and it’s not just Tillerson but Mattis and Mnuchin and others pushing. Removing Tillerson removes one voice pushing back on a more hawkish foreign policy.

But there are two ways in which this could potentially be positive. One is that with Pompeo as secretary of state, the Trump administration can send more effective signals overseas. So Trump’s threats actually have more coercive leverage, or generally credible commitment, with a Pompeo in charge than with a Tillerson. The second way it potentially matters is in a Cabinet meeting where Trump genuinely wants to blow up something, and it would be a catastrophe, and even someone as hawkish as Pompeo says, “Whoa whoa whoa,” and that will mean a lot more to Trump than if it came from Tillerson.

Is it potentially a bad thing, though, for Trump’s threats to have more “coercive leverage”?

Look, pick your poison here: Are we going to stumble into a conflict by accident, or is it going to happen on purpose? Unfortunately, I think those are the two choices. So the danger with Tillerson was always that if he said something, foreign governments would say, “Oh, he’s not serious” or “Trump’s not serious” but then that Trump would potentially follow through. Or the opposite could be the case, and Trump could issue some bombastic threat and not really mean it, but foreign actors would take it too seriously and overreact. The possible advantage of Pompeo would be that the signal-to-noise ratio improves a little bit.

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Isaac Chotiner is a Slate staff writer.