President Donald Trump has tapped CIA Director Mike Pompeo, the former three-term Republican Congress member known for his hawkish stance on Iran and his aggressive grilling of Hillary Clinton over Benghazi, as the new secretary of state.
In his 14 months as CIA director, Pompeo — who will replace beleaguered Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — quickly developed a close relationship with the president. He gave Trump daily intelligence briefings as well as his thoughts on whatever political or national security issue might be prominent that week.
Trump spoke highly of Pompeo on Tuesday. “I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time,” the president told reporters outside the White House. “We’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good. That’s what I need as secretary of state.”
But Pompeo has faced criticism for letting his loyalty to the White House undermine his duties as head of the CIA. That means he’ll take the State Department job while the intelligence community remains under unprecedented assault. That escalated on Monday when House Intelligence Committee Republicans formally disagreed with the intelligence community’s January 2017 assessment that Russia favored Trump during the 2016 presidential election and took steps to help him win.
There’s reason to worry about Pompeo’s credibility and honesty. He repeatedly misrepresented the Russia assessment, stating that the intelligence community concluded Moscow had no effect on the vote’s final result when in reality it made no judgments on that.
If confirmed, Pompeo will bring his more hawkish worldview to the State Department. He’s supported keeping the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, open, defended the CIA’s use of torture in the past, and sees Iran and “radical Islamic terrorism” as top national security threats — all positions closely aligned with those of Trump.
That suggests Pompeo will hew closer to Trump’s worldview than Tillerson has, which has far-reaching implications for US foreign policy.
Pompeo shares much of Trump’s worldview
Beyond his Russia falsehoods, Pompeo is known for a hardline view of Iran — including “rolling back” the Iran nuclear deal — and his support for Guantanamo Bay and the brutal interrogation of terror suspects.
He has defended the CIA’s use of torture during the George W. Bush administration, declaring in November 2016, “These men and women are not torturers, they are patriots,” and, “the programs being used were within the law, within the Constitution.”
Trump’s designated pick as the new CIA director, Gina Haspel, has her own history with torture, including torturing two suspects and destroying videos of their secret interrogation in Thailand.
He’s also advocated for keeping the US prison at Guantanamo Bay open, describing the prison as “critical to national security” and saying that closing it would create the “potential for endless litigation and rights expanded well beyond those afforded to enemy combatants.”
Pompeo, like Trump, sees the threat from terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda as a top national security threat, and criticized the Obama administration for its refusal to call it “radical Islamic terrorism” — a common GOP talking point that aims to frame the terrorist problem as a religious one.
Pompeo also wants to end the Iran nuclear deal, a 2015 agreement between the US, Iran, and European and Asian powers that lifted a series of punishing economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran accepting strict curbs on its nuclear-related activities. “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism,” he tweeted in November 2016 when he was being considered for the CIA job.
And Pompeo consistently defends the president’s forceful stance against North Korea, saying on Sunday that the US will make “no concessions” to Pyongyang even as potential talks between Trump and Kim Jong Un loom.
All of this puts Pompeo in line with Trump’s own thinking.
But Pompeo has also at times been hawkish on Russia, putting him much more in sync with most of the nation’s top military brass, who see Russia as America’s top national security threat, but potentially at odds with Trump.
Speaking at a foreign policy forum in Washington in October 2015, Pompeo said that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “heck bent on changing the geopolitical future,” and criticized the Obama administration for not being tougher on Russia.
Trump, on the other hand, wants to improve America’s relationship with Russia even at the expense of its aggression against allies and American democracy. The president has suggested it is better for the US to work with Russia to solve global problems like terrorism.
A secretary of state must speak for the president. If Trump and Pompeo disagree on Russia, it could set them up for a potential clash on a critical national security issue.
Yet Pompeo has shown time and time again how willing he is to defend the president.
Pompeo has Trump’s trust and his ear — that’s vital for a secretary of state to have
Pompeo has tried repeatedly to protect Trump from one of the most incendiary aspects of the ongoing investigation into possible collusion with Moscow: whether Russian meddling helped Trump win the White House.
On October 19, he took the stage at a prominent Washington think tank and said that the intelligence community concluded that Russia’s interference in the 2016 president election didn’t impact the final result.
The problem is that the January 6 intelligence assessment Pompeo referred to — which represented the collective judgment of the intelligence community— actually said something very different: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Not only was Pompeo’s statement a lie, but it also mirrored Trump’s public position. It suggests Pompeo has no issues parroting Trump’s own views.
Pompeo’s false claim about the assessment wasn’t the only time he put loyalty to Trump above his CIA responsibilities. Late last year, Trump told Pompeo to meet with a conspiracy theorist who believes Russia’s hack and release of Democratic National Committee emails last summer was instead an inside job — and Pompeo took the meeting.
All of this goes to show the burgeoning rapport between Pompeo and the president. In his former role, Pompeo counseled the president nearly every day. He personally delivered the Presidential Daily Brief — the highly classified intelligence report created specifically for the commander in chief.
That means Pompeo was one of the few people with whom Trump discussed important national security issues on a consistent basis. Tillerson, on the other hand, never had Trump’s ear like Pompeo does.
Pompeo is also a creature of Washington. He’s served in Congress for years and has a relationship with others on the Hill and around government. Should the Senate confirm Pompeo for the State Department role, he’ll have an easier time operating in Washington than Tillerson, who doesn’t have a political background and was perceived as an outsider, has.
All of this means that Pompeo could potentially be a far more effective secretary of state than Tillerson ever was. That’s good news on the face of it, but there’s an important catch: Pompeo may just feed and amplify Trump’s worst instincts rather than being a voice of reason.
Tillerson was bold enough push back on the president, especially Trump’s feelings on Iran and Russia. It’s unclear if Pompeo will do the same — and that’s potentially very dangerous.