Rex is out, and Mike is in.
President Donald Trump nominated CIA Director and former Republican congressman Mike Pompeo to be his new Secretary of State on Tuesday after abruptly dismissing Rex Tillerson from the post (via Twitter).
“We were not thinking the same,” Trump explained to reporters Tuesday morning about his decision to replace Tillerson, citing differing views on the nuclear deal with Iran. “With Mike Pompeo, we have a similar thought process."
That thought process would include very hawkish approaches towards Iran and large swathes of the Muslim world—core parts of both Pompeo and Trump’s worldviews. Pompeo called Iran a “thuggish police state” and a “despotic theocracy” last Fall and has argued that the United States is less safe because of the nuclear agreement.
It’s unclear if Pompeo’s more aggressive approach will be welcome in the State Department. Many top officials there took pride in the Iran nuclear deal as proof that diplomacy can work and felt the United State should be building bridges with all of the Muslim world rather than being inherently at odds with it.
"Pompeo will enable Trump’s worst ideological instincts on issues like the Iran nuclear deal."
“Pompeo will likely be a more effective manager and has a good rapport with Trump,” Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense and former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, told VICE News. “That is the good news—and it is also the bad news, since Pompeo will enable Trump’s worst ideological instincts on issues like the Iran nuclear deal."
Still, the State Department under Pompeo may also enjoy more influence than it did under Tillerson which has the potential to improve morale at the department that has suffered from a wave of retirements of senior officials and scores of top positions being left unfilled.
Trump’s fraught relationship with the former Exxon CEO often led the White House to cut out the department from sensitive diplomatic negotiations, as was highlighted last week when Trump accepted an invitation to meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un just hours after Tillerson said such a meeting wouldn’t be “realistic.” In other words, Tillerson had managed to alienate both the career bureaucracy at the State Department and the president who appointed him.
And with Tillerson gone, this what you need to know about his likely successor:
Pompeo meets with Trump almost every day
Pompeo personally briefed Trump most days on the CIA’s Presidential Daily Brief, a rundown of the country’s most sensitive intelligence. Pompeo filled that briefing with “killer graphics” to “get to the core of the issue quickly,” as he told the Washington Post last year. “That’s our task, right? To deliver the material in a way that he can best understand the information we’re trying to communicate.” Some critics have mocked this approach for demonstrating that the president doesn’t like to read and only has a superficial understanding of the issues.
But the tact seems to have endeared Pompeo to the president. As early as November, Chief of Staff John Kelly had developed a plan to have Pompeo replace Tillerson at the State Department, according a New York Times at the time.
He's been accused of politicizing the CIA to defend Trump
Trump often demands loyalty of his top appointees and is furious when they defy him, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions found out the hard way when he recused himself from the Russia investigation. This presents every top official with a tough balance between serving the institution and serving the president, and some within the intelligence community has felt that Pompeo errs on the side of the president.
Pompeo raised questions about his independence when he met with a 74-year-old former intelligence official who had been pushing a disputed theory that the Democratic National Committee’s email leak was not the product of Russian hackers but rather an inside job. The former National Security Agency official, William Binney, told The Intercept that Pompeo met with him at the direct urging of Trump himself, suggesting that the president was attempting the pressure the agency in its Russia investigation.
Pompeo has also publicly boasted of delegating decision-making authority as director. “Forty percent of the decisions that were previously made by he director of the CIA no longer are made by me,” he told the American Enterprise Institute in January.
But Pompeo also conspicuously added a responsibility: having the Counterintelligence Mission Center, which is deeply involved in the ongoing Russia investigation, report directly to him. That move concerned top officials within the agency, according to The Washington Post.
Pompeo also appeared to be giving Trump political cover when last July he played down Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, saying that Russia had meddled in that election “and the one before that, and the one before that.” That description contradicted the intelligence community’s assessment in January of 2017 that said Russia’s efforts represented a “significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort.”
Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the highest ranking Democrat on the House intelligence Committee, said in a statement that he worried about Pompeo’s deference to Trump.
“Director Pompeo has not always been willing to stand up to the President, particularly when Trump has questioned the intelligence community's conclusions on Russia, and we will need the new secretary to be willing to speak hard truths to the President,” Schiff said.
Pompeo believes in the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism”
Donald Trump ran for president promising to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the country because they represented a danger to national security. While Pompeo publicly opposed that proposal, his record suggests he agrees with Trump’s premise that large parts of the Muslim world are a major threat to the United States and that America must confront what Trump calls “radical Islamic terrorism.”
A few quick facts:
- On the House floor, Pompeo accused American Muslims of being “potentially complicit” in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings because he said they had not sufficiently condemned the attacks. “It casts doubt on the commitment to peace by adherents of the Muslim faith.
- Pompeo co-sponsored a bill to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
- After a Middle East fact-finding trip in 2015, Pompeo said that “you don’t find many Thomas Jefferson’s over there.” He added that while many Muslims deplore terrorism, “the line needs to be drawn between those who are on the side of extremism and those who are fighting against them, of whatever faith we may find them.”
- In 2015, Pompeo suggested there is a basic conflict between the “Christian west” and “Islamic east” and that Barack Obama seemed to sympathize with the latter. “Every time there has been a conflict between the Christian west and the Islamic east the data points all point to a single direction,” he said. “It is very clear that this administration – and when I say that a very narrow slice inside the leadership regime here in Washington has concluded that America is better off with greater Iranian influence certainly in the Middle East but I think around- certainly it’s tolerated around the world.”
Pompeo could help Trump blow up the Iran nuclear deal
Pompeo has long been itching for the federal government to be far more confrontational with Iran. In a speech last October when Trump was considering whether to recertify the Iran nuclear deal, Pompeo said that Iran “has become more reckless and provocative, seeking to exploit the vacuum left by instability in the Middle East to aggressively expand its influence.” He added that “the threat is clear: Iran is mounting a ruthless drive to be the hegemonic power in the region."
Trump is still considering whether to scuttle the agreement altogether, and Pompeo will likely encourage him to do so. As the Obama administration was negotiating the deal with Iran, Pompeo suggested that a military attack on the country’s nuclear sites would be a better approach. “This is not an insurmountable task for the coalition forces,” he said in 2014.
Cover image: CIA Director Mike Pompeo delivers remarks at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) June 16, 2017 in Washington, DC. The OSS was the precursor to the CIA and was established to 'collect and analyze such strategic information as may be required by the United States'. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)