How Mike Pompeo Could Save the State Department

He has something going for him that Rex Tillerson never did: Trump trusts him.

Mike Pompeo attends his confirmation hearing before the Senate (Select) Intelligence Committee on January 12, 2017 in Washington, DC.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Former congressman and CIA Director Mike Pompeo has a bio that sparkles even in Washington: top of his class at West Point, five years of Army service, Harvard Law, success in business, and now politics. In Donald Trump’s Washington, Pompeo has added perhaps the most important laurel of all: trusted lieutenant to the president. By providing the president regular deskside briefings, “killer graphics,” and alignment on policy, Pompeo has cultivated Trump as his patron, and now Trump has rewarded him with an appointment to serve as secretary of state.

However, Pompeo’s ascension to State will test his abilities and strain his relationship with the president much more than his tenure at CIA did. To succeed at State, Pompeo must accomplish three tasks that will, at times, compete with each other. A successful secretary of state needs to be perceived as part of the president’s inner circle so he is credibly seen as America’s chief diplomat. Pompeo must also repair relationships with America’s closest allies and alliances, who have largely watched the events of the past 15 months with horror. And to be effective, Pompeo must lead a State Department neglectfully managed by Rex Tillerson and denigrated by Trump. However, the first goal will often be in tension with the second and third; to succeed where Tillerson failed, Pompeo must be more than Trump’s man at State, and do more than simply echo his boss to the world.

Before he was unceremoniously fired, Tillerson endured many slights and disagreements with Trump. The two never connected on any level. Personally, both came from very different tribes within the business community. Tillerson was a baron of the American establishment whose personal conservatism and austere management of the ExxonMobil empire stands in stark contrast to Trump’s freewheeling real estate, casino, and reality TV pursuits. Politically, Tillerson came in with the establishment views one would expect of an American magnate. These establishment views clashed both with Trump’s “America First” policies and baser instincts, too. In retrospect, it is surprising that Tillerson lasted as long as he did, following public ruptures with the president on North Korea, Afghanistan, Russia, and the Paris climate accord, not to mention Tillerson reportedly called the president a “fucking moron” after one particularly heated meeting at the Pentagon.

Pompeo will start his new job with a much closer relationship with Trump than Tillerson had a year ago. In one telling anecdote, Pompeo smartly changed his daily routine so that he could personally brief the president most mornings. Doing so has given Pompeo enormous amounts of facetime with the boss while placing him in the important roles of secret-sharer and teacher. Pompeo’s a smart guy, and no doubt he’s been coached by the best intelligence professionals at his agency; he arguably has the closest relationship with the president of any Cabinet member, if not yet the veneration the president reserves for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. This will give him a seat at the table—or inclusion in the tweets—and give him credibility as America’s chief diplomat that Tillerson never had.

On policy, Pompeo already aligns far more closely with Trump than Tillerson did, and that will give him credibility abroad too. Many of Trump’s “America First” messages align closely with stances Pompeo, a Tea Party Republican, has taken on foreign policy for many years, including both his time in Congress and the Trump administration. Since taking over the CIA, Pompeo has remained hawkish on Iran and Middle East policy, lining up with the president against more dovish leaders like Tillerson and Mattis, who wanted to give peace a chance. On Russia, Pompeo walked a fine line between diplomacy and deception (he is CIA director, after all) by acknowledging intelligence findings about Russian espionage during the 2016 election, while pooh-poohing any notion that it affected the election’s outcome, just as Trump has done.

However, a successful secretary of state cannot simply be the president’s envoy; he or she must also develop relationships with foreign leaders and represent those countries’ arguments back to the U.S. government. Here, it’s clear that Pompeo has the necessary political skill, but this task will be made tougher by Pompeo’s hard-line policy stances, close alignment with the president, and brash personality. He must also confront the damage the administration has done over the past 15 months: a strained relationship with NATO, muddled relations with Gulf allies, abandonment of trade in the Pacific, and more. Pompeo will inherit a global set of grievances, as well as distrust and dismay at the extent to which the U.S. has seemingly stepped back from its international leadership role. Pompeo cannot simply be Trump’s man in foreign capitals; he must engage with foreign leaders and steer American foreign policy toward supporting our interests abroad, even when those interests diverge from Trump’s.

Historically, the State Department has been responsible for certain policy areas that now seem quaint or obsolete within the Trump administration: human rights foremost, but also democracy promotion, refugee support, and support for international organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and United Nations. Ideals have long animated U.S. foreign policy alongside interests, but these ideals have withered under Trump. The State Department offices for many of these areas have been decapitated, defunded, or dismantled. These areas may not matter to Trump, but they do matter to America’s allies. Pompeo could achieve a lot diplomatically by earnestly trying to promote American ideals in ways that help bring our allies closer.

The third thing Pompeo must do is competently lead and manage the State Department—a vast bureaucratic archipelago that employs nearly 75,000 Americans and another 50,000 local staff spread across 276 diplomatic posts in 195 countries. Unclassified estimates suggest that State is approximately two to three times larger than the CIA, suggesting this will not be a huge leap for Pompeo. But that is where the similarities stop. The State Department culture is as strong—if quite different—than that of the CIA. Pompeo must earn the trust and loyalty of career diplomatic personnel who have been largely shunned by this administration and the president himself. Pompeo’s style will need to change, too. Diplomats largely operate in the open, making news as part of their jobs, and engaging with the public at home and abroad. That’s very different from the CIA’s modus operandi, and it will require a shift for Pompeo back to the more visible public life he led as a member of Congress.

Fortunately for Pompeo, but unfortunately for the State Department, he comes in the wake of one of the worst secretaries of state in modern history. Tillerson’s efforts to reorganize the department went nowhere, inflicting serious damage to morale and efficacy in the process. His strategy of leaving positions vacant until the reorganization undermined the department’s effectiveness in responding to global crises, and staking its ground in Washington policy debates too. Tillerson reigned over an exodus of senior diplomats and a trough in applications from future diplomats, creating a gap in State’s talent pipeline that will be felt for decades.

If Pompeo simply does a modest job of leading and managing the agency, he’ll look better than Tillerson. But he must do more to make State effective, beginning with filling all of the vacant positions for senior diplomats and political appointees. These vacancies have gone unfilled for far too long, and they will now handicap Pompeo as they hobbled Tillerson. The time has come to move past this administration’s political tribalism and fill these roles with qualified public servants—even if those include “never Trump” Republicans or (gasp) Democrats. Pompeo has the political clout with Trump to make this happen—and he should use it because it will help him and Trump’s presidency in the long run.

No shortage of foreign policy challenges awaits Pompeo as secretary of state if he’s confirmed by the Senate. A summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un looms in the next two months; tensions with Iran and Russia remain high on a number of fronts; competition with China continues; a summer NATO summit awaits; the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria grind on. Pompeo has the right stuff to be a good secretary of state—and to make the Trump administration better too—but he must choose to be more than merely Trump’s man at State.