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What Trump’s new secretary of state pick means for war with North Korea

Mike Pompeo will probably be a more effective diplomat than Tillerson. He’ll also be more hawkish.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held on to his job for 13 tense months despite repeatedly breaking with President Trump — and once reportedly calling him “a fucking moron.”

But now that Trump is preparing for what would be a historic one-on-one meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, it seems he has finally decided it’s time for Rex to hit the road — and to bring in someone Trump actually likes and trusts.

Someone like CIA Director Mike Pompeo, whom Trump has picked to replace Tillerson.

Trump and Tillerson had long been at odds; they disagreed on everything from the Paris climate agreement to the Iran deal, and Trump publicly undermined Tillerson constantly. In October, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man” (his nickname for Kim) the day after Tillerson told reporters during a trip to China that the US was interested in dialogue with the North Korean leader.

Pompeo, on the other hand, has the president’s ear. As CIA director, Pompeo personally delivered the presidential daily brief — the highly classified intelligence report created specifically for the commander in chief — to Trump every morning. He’s also proven his loyalty to the president time and again since taking the top spy job.

Which means that, assuming Pompeo is confirmed as secretary of state, he will almost certainly serve Trump better than Tillerson did in his role as the nation’s top diplomat.

That’s potentially good news for the upcoming talks with North Korea: Having a secretary of state Trump actually respects and trusts overseeing the negotiations could make things go a lot smoother.

But analysts warn that Pompeo’s ultra-hawkish foreign policy views and his recent tough rhetoric on North Korea suggest that Trump could end up taking a harder line against Kim than ever before — potentially making a military conflict between the two nuclear powers more likely.

Tillerson should have been replaced a long time ago

Tillerson hasn’t been a credible spokesperson for Trump’s foreign policy positions for a long time now — in large part due to Trump himself. Trump did irreparable damage to Tillerson’s ability to function as his emissary by undercutting him publicly over and over again.

To take one of many examples, Tillerson in June called on Saudi Arabia and its allies to end their diplomatic and economic isolation campaign against Qatar; less than two hours later, Trump sided with the Saudis by labeling Qatar “a funder of terrorism at a very high level.”

And, of course, Tillerson was publicly humiliated when Trump told him he was “wasting his time” trying to find ways to talk to Kim.

Despite this record, Tillerson attempted to frame his time at the helm of the State Department as a success, and even brought up North Korea as a highlight.

“We exceeded the expectations of almost everyone with the DPRK [North Korea] maximum pressure campaign with the announcement on my very first trip as secretary of state to the region,” Tillerson said during a press conference on Tuesday. “The era of strategic patience was over, and we commenced the steps to dramatically increase not just the scope but the effectiveness of the sanctions.”

The reality is, however, that Tillerson was not effective as a diplomat and Pompeo doesn’t have very big shoes to fill when he takes over.

Pompeo is closer to Trump — and he’s more likely to advocate for war

Pompeo is both personally and ideologically closer to Trump than Tillerson was. Which means the secretary of state may actually represent the president’s voice now.

As CIA director, Pompeo had daily interactions with Trump when he personally delivered briefings to him. And during that time, Trump became comfortable seeking his counsel on loads of other issues beyond intelligence, including immigration and how Congress works.

Pompeo has also displayed a quality that Trump values in his personnel perhaps more than any other: loyalty.

As my colleague Alex Ward has written, Pompeo lied last October when he said the intelligence community had concluded that Russian interference hadn’t affected the final result of the election. That was false — US spies never touched the question of whether Russian meddling changed the outcome — and was a clear bid to provide Trump with political cover.

What’s especially worrisome is that Pompeo is more likely to amplify some of Trump’s more aggressive instincts than Tillerson was.

A former Tea Party Congress member, Pompeo will bring a fervently 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.

On North Korea specifically, there are recent signs that he could take an especially hard line. In January, Pompeo said that the US is set on preventing North Korea from being able to develop a reliable arsenal of long-range nuclear weapons, although he didn’t provide details on what a preventive measure would look like.

Mira Rapp-Hooper, a North Korea expert at Yale University, told me that Pompeo’s rhetoric suggests he may believe that preventive military action could be needed to stop North Korea from achieving that capability.

Pompeo also seems to have some skepticism about Kim’s capabilities as a decision-maker. “We in the intelligence community … have said that Kim Jong Un is rational, but it is also the case today that we don’t think he has an understanding about how tenuous his position is — domestically and internationally,” Pompeo said during a speech in December.

Analysts say that if Pompeo begins to think Kim ultimately can’t be trusted to make rational choices, it could make him more inclined to argue for the use of force against North Korea.

So far, Pompeo sounds like he’s planning to approach talks aggressively — on Sunday, he signaled that the US will not compromise on any issue during initial negotiations with Kim. “Make no mistake about it,” he said on Fox News Sunday. “While these negotiations are going on, there will be no concessions made.”

Pompeo will likely be more effective at communicating with the president than Tillerson, and in that sense, he’s bound to improve on the performance of his predecessor.

But the secretary of state isn’t just tasked with speaking for Trump on the world stage; he’s also charged with advising him. And the things Pompeo could encourage Trump to do in his dealings with North Korea could make a peaceful resolution to the crisis even less likely.

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