In this month’s Newsmaker, Alasdair Soussi profiles President Trump’s new Secretary of State, ex-CIA chief Mike Pompeo.
Through the revolving door of American President Donald Trump’s White House enters Mike Pompeo, who looks likely to be confirmed by the Senate this month in the heavy-duty role of US Secretary of State.
“He will do a fantastic job!” stated a jubilant Trump on Twitter in March, shortly after selecting Pompeo and unceremoniously binning Rex Tillerson, the man who was the president’s first appointee as America’s top diplomat.
When Trump first nominated Tillerson to lead the Department of State in December 2016, he called the Texan oil baron “one of the truly great business leaders of the world”. But a difficult working relationship, together with reports that Tillerson had called his boss a “fucking moron” last summer — which Tillerson notably never denied — was never going to make for a long and happy union in a Trump administration which has not had its disharmony to seek.
So in comes Pompeo, the outgoing director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and a man who, as a widely reported Trump loyalist, appears to be right up the president’s street at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time — tremendous energy, tremendous intellect, we’re always on the same wavelength,” Trump told reporters from the White House lawn after his decision to swing the axe on Tillerson was made public. “The relationship has been very good and that’s what I need as Secretary of State.”
The man who — for now at least — has become a Trump favourite was born Michael Richard Pompeo in December 1963 in California. The son of Wayne, a man of Italian descent, and Dorothy Pompeo, the high flying American spy-master-turned-diplomat attended California’s Los Amigos High School where he was part of the varsity basketball squad.
From high school, Pompeo headed to the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. In 1986, he graduated first in his class and secured a degree in mechanical engineering. Several years in the US army followed when he rose to the rank of captain and saw a tour of duty in East Germany — before the fall of the Berlin Wall — though widely reported claims of his participation in the first Gulf War were recently debunked by the CIA itself. His time in the military over, he then won a place at the prestigious Harvard Law School where he received a Juris Doctor in 1994 and was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.
His political breakthrough came in 2010 when he was elected to the House of Representatives for Kansas’ 4th District with the support of Republican billionaire industrialists, Charles and David Koch, who had also invested in Thayer Aerospace.
In 1998, Pompeo established Thayer Aerospace, an aviation parts company that he began with graduate friends from West Point. But his political breakthrough came in 2010 when he was elected to the House of Representatives for Kansas’ 4th District with the support of Republican billionaire industrialists, Charles and David Koch, who had also invested in Thayer Aerospace.
In Washington, Pompeo became part of the House Intelligence Committee — but also found himself making headlines for his less than studious remarks. Indeed, having earlier been forced to apologise during his election run after an article that labelled his Indian-American Democratic opponent, Raj Goyle, a ‘turban topper’ was tweeted by one of his political aides, the aftermath of the bloody 2013 Boston marathon bombing saw him take to the House floor and aim a shot at Islam:
“When the most devastating terrorist attacks on America in the last 20 years come overwhelmingly from people of a single faith and are performed in the name of that faith, a special obligation falls on those that are the leaders of that faith,” he stated.
“Instead of responding, silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts and, more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Edward Snowden have also been the subject of Pompeo’s ire. While serving on the House Select Benghazi Committee in 2014, looking into the deadly assault on an American diplomatic compound in Libya two years before, Pompeo wrote that the attacks showed the State Department was “seemingly more concerned with politics and Secretary Clinton’s legacy than with protecting its people in Benghazi”. This, despite the Committee finding no new evidence of culpability or wrongdoing on Clinton’s part.
He has also pulled no punches concerning Snowden — a “traitor” in Pompeo’s eyes. He said that the National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower betrayed his country by leaking sensitive information to media outlets and deserved the death penalty as opposed to his current exile in Russia.
Pompeo shares both Trump’s distaste of former US president Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and the 2015 Paris climate agreement, from which Trump announced America’s withdrawal last summer to much global outcry.
The robust and ambitious statesman, and married father of one son, was elected to the House during the Tea Party wave — the US movement with links to the more conservative elements of the Republican Party. He assumed the role as CIA director in January 2017 and began building a strong rapport with Trump. Pompeo shares both Trump’s distaste of former US president Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and the 2015 Paris climate agreement, from which Trump announced America’s withdrawal last summer to much global outcry.
If confirmed as US Secretary of State, the 54-year-old former congressman will be the first person to have served his country in the role of top spy and top diplomat. And while his right-wing views echo that of his boss, his opinions have diverged from Trump on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. In his job as CIA chief, he told the BBC that he saw Russia as masters of disinformation and political interference, stating: ”I haven’t seen a significant decrease in their activity”.
On the Russia front, Democratic minority leader Chuck Schumer also said in a statement last month: “If he’s confirmed [as Secretary of State] we hope that Mr Pompeo will turn over a new leaf and will start toughening up our policies towards Russia and Putin.”
Mike Pompeo biography:
30 December, 1963: born in Orange, California – 1986: graduates first in his class from US military school at West Point – 1994: graduates Harvard Law School – 1998: co-founds Thayer Aerospace – 2011 to 2017: represents Kansas as a Republican in the House of Representatives – 2017: becomes CIA Director – 13 March, 2018: Trump announces Pompeo will replace Rex Tillerson as US Secretary of State.
Pompeo’s task — among many others — will be to bring his own style of management to a State Department which, according to many commentators, was badly mishandled by Tillerson during his short tenure in the job. According to The Economist: ‘Having run ExxonMobil, the tenth-biggest company in the world by revenue, [Tillerson] treated diplomacy like business and his department like a division ripe for restructuring’.
Pompeo, a political heavyweight and now a trusted member of Trump’s inner circle — which has been buffeted by a long line of resignations and sackings — will no doubt revel in his new role as America’s diplomat-in-chief, should he assume the post. Indeed, it was revealed that he had already flexed his diplomatic muscles after Trump confirmed that Pompeo had travelled to North Korea and met with Kim Jong-un over the Easter weekend in preparation for the upcoming summit meeting between the American president and the leader of the secretive state. But only time will tell whether the revolving door of the White House will also claim Pompeo as another Trump scalp, should he fall foul of the US president’s political predilections.
Alasdair Soussi is an internationally published freelance journalist, currently based in Glasgow, who has worked across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. He is on Twitter at: @AlasdairSoussi To read more about Alasdair’s work, go to: alasdairsoussi.com
Feature image: Mike Pompeo, 2016. Image: Office of the President-elect [CC].