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Home/Daniel Larison/Pompeo the Yes-Man

Pompeo the Yes-Man

U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo participates in a press conference with U.S. President Donald J. Trump during the NATO Foreign Ministerial in Brussels on July 12, 2018. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

Susan Glasser has written a long profile of Mike Pompeo, and she explains how he has managed to stay in Trump’s good graces over the last year:

The word “mission” was the tell. Pompeo in public often refers to the “mission set” he’s been assigned by Trump, presenting himself as a mere executor of the President’s commands. “He’s very focussed on whatever the mission is. He’s a West Point guy: Trump wants a deal, so I’ll get a deal,” another of the former officials said. The official noted that Pompeo uses the language of “an Army captain, a guy who went to West Point and got out before he became a general.”

This behavior is the reason that Pompeo has succeeded in becoming the lone survivor of Trump’s original national-security team. At the start of his Administration, the President had bragged about “my generals.” But, now that he has pushed out the actual generals who served as his chief of staff, his national-security adviser, and his Defense Secretary, it seems clear that Trump was uncomfortable with such leaders, and rejected their habits of command and independent thinking. He wanted a Mike Pompeo, not a Jim Mattis, a captain trained to follow orders, not a general used to giving them.

The profile shows how Pompeo has repeatedly remade himself into whatever he thinks he needs to be at the time. Back in Kansas, he didn’t initially position himself as a hard-liner until he saw that he needed that to win, and then after he became a hard-liner he went overboard in becoming one of the most rabid partisans and extreme Iran hawks in Congress. Before Trump became the nominee, Pompeo vocally opposed him in the strongest terms and supported Rubio, but since he joined the administration he has become almost comically effusive in his praise and support for the president. Earlier in the profile, Glasser quotes former officials that have a cruder but probably more accurate assessment of how Pompeo keeps his job:

The former official said that, in private, too, Pompeo is “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” Even more bluntly, a former American ambassador told me, “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”

It is Pompeo’s willingness to play the groveling yes-man to the president that has kept him around this long, and it is also one important reason why he constantly tells so many preposterous lies about the “successes” of Trump administration policies. He doesn’t care if he is deceiving the public or Congress as long as he is flattering Trump and making the president think that everything is going well. Pompeo’s serial lying doesn’t come up in the profile, but the profile helps explain why the lying comes so easily to him.

One of the funnier stories in the profile is the account of how Pompeo used his connections with Mike Pence to angle for the CIA Director position, which led to Trump agreeing to appoint him without realizing that Pompeo had previously savaged him during the campaign:

Two days later, Trump announced that Pompeo was his nominee for the C.I.A. job. Trump seemed to know little about him, and Representative Devin Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team, later said that he didn’t think Pompeo had even filled out a vetting questionnaire.

After the announcement, Jeff Roe, Ted Cruz’s former campaign manager, called Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and reminded him of Trump’s fury at Pompeo’s Kansas caucus speech. As Tim Alberta recounts in his book, “American Carnage,” Kushner put the call on speaker, so that Trump could hear. “No! That was him? We’ve got to take it back,” the President-elect roared. “This is what I get for letting Pence pick everyone.” But the appointment stood. Two weeks later, Pompeo was hanging out with Trump in Urban’s box at the Army-Navy football game.

It is typical of the shoddiness of Trump’s hiring practices that he picked an unqualified Congressman to run the CIA without even knowing who he was, but the somewhat surprising thing about this episode is that Trump didn’t end up holding Pompeo’s previous criticism against him. Pompeo evidently proved to Trump that he could be just as much of a suck-up as a he was a critic, and that is what he has done. Unfortunately for the country, that has meant having a wholly unqualified man in charge of representing the U.S. to the world because he happens to know how to stroke the president’s ego.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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