Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, told me in November that not only did he like the idea of a Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, but that he should aim higher. “Pompeo-Haley in 2020!” he emailed, adding on neoconservative heartthrob Nikki Haley, the rockstar U.N. ambassador, as his vice president.
Indeed, as I wrote then in The National Interest: “If you had to create a conservative American politician in a test tube, you might come up with Mike Pompeo,” adding: “The fifty-three-year-old Pompeo is a valedictorian graduate of West Point, a Harvard-trained lawyer and former U.S. Congressman (where he represented the district in which Koch Industries is headquartered). In the Fox News era, he was a star of the Benghazi hearings that needled Hillary Clinton.”
Kristol, who helped to cultivate Sarah Palin, recognizes talent earlier than most. Forgotten now (not least by our president), Kristol wanted Pompeo to run as a NeverTrump alternative in spring of 2016, after the populist billionaire took his party by storm and had all but secured the presidential nomination. “The alternative to Trump and Clinton could be a not-terribly-well-known but capable congressman like Mike Pompeo,” Kristol wrote. (He also wanted was now-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to run, an also forgotten fun-fact.)
In addition to Pompeo, consider Tom Cotton, the hawkish Arkansas wunderkind.
No two politicians in America have been shrewder in recognizing the violently obvious: that post-2016, movement conservatism of the purely Reaganite variety is dead and gone. Which is why they have been two of the breakout stars of the Trump era—establishment CV’s, the wherewithal to pivot toward the nationalist anti-establishment. They’re likely formidable for years to come. And both men want to be president.
Molly Ball’s important 2014 piece, “The Making of a Conservative Superstar,” detailed how Cotton frequently met Kristol for drinks and dinner at the Mayflower in Washington before Cotton was ever an elected official.
And Kristol’s son, Joe Kristol, has worked for Cotton since August.
But Pompeo and Cotton are smart. As I noted in TNI last fall, Pompeo would be an attractive candidate at Foggy Bottom for President Trump because he unites Bannonites and neocons. The former White House chief strategist and Breitbart chairman told me he thinks Pompeo is great. Cotton? “The best, but still trying to wring the neocon out of him.”
Much to Kristol’s horror though, Cotton set himself apart from the biggest talent of the under-fifty set in his party by wholeheartedly embracing Trump at the 2016 convention, giving a stirring address in his favor. Marco Rubio goofily appeared by video. Ted Cruz infamously implored a vote of conscience.
On the flip side, as the U.S. prepares for strikes on Syria, Kristol singles out Pompeo and Cotton for hero status for their words in 2013: when much of the then-opposition Republican Party opposed action against the strongman Bashar Assad, these two wanted to take the Syrian leader out.
Mike Pence, vice president, is the assumed successor of President Trump as Republican standard-bearer. Unlike Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, his immediate predecessors, Pence is both plainly interested and not a septuagenarian. But should Pompeo ascend to the post of the nation’s top diplomat, Pence will likely find a frenemy. A secretary of state thwarted Biden’s presidential aims. It could happen again. Perhaps it’s why Mike Pence once tried to patch things up between Trump and Tillerson, to no avail.
Much of the attention in the cabinet has been on Haley. Reporters at the U.N. have jokingly called her “madam president.” But Haley has proved somewhat surprisingly deferential. She’s had to deny reports she was offered the role of secretary of state before Tillerson—but if such reports are to believed, she turned down the role because as a departing South Carolina governor she felt wasn’t ready for such a top national security post. And she didn’t put up a huge fight when Pompeo began coalescing a shadow State Department last fall—the media narrative earlier in 2017 was that she was the former Exxon chief’s principle rival. Alternatively, another source informs she was very much gunning for secretary right to the end; in this telling, she was just out-hustled.
Pompeo is organized. As I’ve reported, his wingman is Juan Zarate, a former George W. Bush Treasury official now at the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a whole host of other institutions, who could soon be number two at State with Pompeo. Especially on Iran, FDD has become something of an in-house think tank for the Trump administration. Similar to Pompeo, many in FDD’s ranks are of a newer generation of national security hawks. “There’s no secret here: I’m not an unbiased journalist. I’m a fan of this director. I worked on his transition,” Zarate told a gathering at the St. Regis last October, introducing Pompeo. “Frankly, I love the man.”
But first: Pompeo has to get confirmed for secretary. His nomination is in greater jeopardy than originally envisioned, in part because of Rand Paul’s acidic opposition, in part because of John McCain’s health (as well as his allergy to voting for anyone who has defended enhanced interrogation), and in part because of interest group rallying (the antiwar coalition is far more optimistic in their ability to stop him than they were a week ago).
I can report exclusively for TAC: the administration is taking notice. A source close to the White House says the administration has been positively leaking on Pompeo’s behalf, concerned about his prospects. A CNN report published Saturday morning detailed how Pompeo is now the pointman on North Korea, working with U.S. officials in leading up an intelligence backchannel with Pyongyang. The message is clear: a vote against Pompeo is a vote against a man already hard at work at U.S. diplomacy, on the most sensitive of national security issues.
Pompeo first appears before Senate Foreign Relations Thursday morning.
Curt Mills is foreign-affairs reporter at The National Interest, where he covers the State Department, the National Security Council and the Trump presidency.