Mike Pompeo used to be one of the loudest, most partisan Republicans in the House. He called a Democratic senator “narcissistic” for releasing a report on the U.S. and torture. He branded Hillary Clinton’s response to Benghazi as “morally reprehensible” and “worse, in some ways,” than Watergate.
But now that he’s secretary of State, Pompeo has flipped the narrative, belittling Congress for “caterwauling” and lamenting how “political” his former colleagues are.
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It’s a contrast likely to be on display Wednesday, when Pompeo testifies for the first time before a Democratic-controlled House Foreign Affairs Committee. His congressional past will loom over the setting as Pompeo has made moves recently that appear aimed at plotting his political future, including visiting several U.S. states, such as Iowa. As Pompeo ponders whether to run for Senate, or perhaps a higher office, he’s also showing signs of restlessness and irascibility in his role as the top U.S. diplomat.
While his defenders say Pompeo is adjusting to the duties of each job he holds, Democrats see something else.
“What you ask yourself is, ‘Who is the real Pompeo?’” said Rep. Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York who has clashed with the secretary over Benghazi. “I think the real Pompeo is the Pompeo who was the member of Congress who was arrogant and indignant to Hillary Clinton and others.”
When in Congress, Pompeo rarely missed a chance to slam the Obama administration, and Clinton in particular, over the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens. At one point, he said, Clinton “put her own political legacy ahead of the people that she sent into harm’s way.”
But as secretary of State, he has defended proposed State Department budget cuts some fear could prompt similar tragedies.
As a House member from Kansas, Pompeo relentlessly demanded information from the executive branch on sensitive issues such as Benghazi and the Iran nuclear deal. Now that he’s in the executive branch, however, Pompeo won’t hand over similar materials, despite repeated entreaties from legislators.
“In the public eye, he tries to appear to be a guy who is calm and thoughtful … [but] when you press him, you see who’s the real Pompeo,” Meeks said.
Democrats plan to do just that at Wednesday’s hearing. While the gathering is supposed to focus on the State Department budget, the lawmakers whom Pompeo has dissed, ignored or otherwise insulted are eager to grill the Cabinet member on a range of topics, from U.S. policy toward North Korea to President Donald Trump’s approach to autocrats.
“As a former member of Congress, the secretary takes seriously his obligation to brief members and he welcomes the opportunity,” State Department deputy spokesperson Robert Palladino said.
Pompeo has tried to shake off his reputation of fierce partisanship since joining the Trump administration, first as CIA director and then as secretary of State. But his transition from lawmaker to Cabinet member has been uneven, with his congressional track record leaving him open to charges of hypocrisy, according to former U.S. officials, analysts and others.
In his first public speech as CIA chief, for instance, Pompeo slammed WikiLeaks as a “hostile intelligence service.” Critics quickly noted that, while in Congress, Pompeo had happily pointed to disclosures from WikiLeaks as a means of discrediting Democrats, including Clinton, the former secretary of State who lost the presidency to Trump.
A few months earlier, ahead of the Senate’s vote to confirm him as CIA director, Pompeo privately apologized for his “narcissistic” jab and other personal attacks directed at Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein after she released a bombshell report on the CIA’s use of torture during the George W. Bush administration. Feinstein accepted the apology and voted for Pompeo.
When he was later tapped to become Trump’s secretary of State, Pompeo’s made more efforts to reach out to Democrats. With his confirmation not yet a sure thing, Pompeo even called Clinton and another Democratic predecessor, John Kerry, for advice on how to run the State Department.
His defenders insist that Pompeo has grown into his role as a diplomat and Cabinet member since taking over at State. If he’s frustrated, they say, it’s because of the nature of the questions and criticisms directed at him, especially from the men and women still on Capitol Hill.
“I think as the nation’s top diplomat, he’s adjusted to being on the other side quite well,” said a person close to Pompeo, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. “He answers to members of Congress, but that should be on issues of substance and not pettiness.”
Perhaps more than any other topic, Pompeo’s past focus on Benghazi haunts him now, with lawmakers constantly needling him about it.
For instance, Democrats have repeatedly asked Pompeo to turn over material related to allegations that Trump appointees engaged in political retribution against career staffers at State. Pompeo has refused, saying that because two federal offices are investigating the topic, it would be inappropriate for him to share material with Congress.
Democrats have pushed back on his logic, pointing to Pompeo’s own past demands for information about Benghazi when he was in Congress.
“As you stated when you served alongside us in the House of Representatives, it is unacceptable for Congress to take a back seat … when it comes to the crucial work of overseeing our national security apparatus,” Sen. Bob Menendez and Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrats on the Senate and House foreign relations committees, wrote in a letter to Pompeo on March 14. “You were right then, and we expect you do the right thing now.”
The most public of the Benghazi dust-ups involved Meeks.
When Pompeo appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee last May, Meeks slammed him for his treatment of Clinton. “You went after her with venom,” he inveighed, questioning why Pompeo had said so little about the issue of diplomatic security since taking over at State.
Meeks also asserted that Trump’s proposed budget cuts to the State Department at the time — which Pompeo defended — could undermine security at U.S. diplomatic facilities. Trump has submitted a new budget plan this year that again includes severe cuts to State, although Congress is expected to ignore the proposal, like it did the last two years.
“Diplomatic security is not about dollars expended,” Pompeo said last year. “It’s about delivering real security. It’s about getting the right outcomes.”
Pompeo has upset Republicans as well as Democrats with his occasional stonewalling, including what lawmakers say is a refusal to pursue a serious investigation into Saudi Arabia’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Eyes rolled across the Hill when Pompeo published an op-ed accusing U.S. lawmakers of “caterwauling” over the Khashoggi case.
One exchange last year on Capitol Hill captured well how Pompeo’s pugilistic past hangs over his current interactions with Congress.
When Menendez was pressing the secretary of State to share what he knew about Trump’s meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Pompeo accused his questioner of playing games and engaging in a “political soliloquy.”
Menendez wasn’t having it. “Don’t talk to me about politics,” the New Jersey Democrat shot back. “Want to talk about politics? If President Obama did what President Trump did in Helsinki, I’d be peeling you off the Capitol ceiling.”
Pompeo and Menendez in particular have a testy relationship.
The secretary accuses Menendez of blocking many of his nominees for State Department leadership roles. Menendez, in turn, blames the administration for nominating people who lack proper qualifications. The two are expected to face off during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in April.
Even Pompeo’s detractors agree that the secretary of State is in a tough spot given that he serves a loyalty-demanding president with mercurial policy views. But Pompeo seems to go out of his way never to break with Trump. Even when Pompeo stakes out a different position from Trump, he nonetheless insists it’s not really different at all.
When pressed by journalists on the administration’s policies, Pompeo — especially in recent months — acts highly defensive. He has regularly cut off reporters, dismissing their questions as “ridiculous” or otherwise expresses his impatience, tsk-tsking reporters by repeating their first names.
“Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre,” he chided USA TODAY’s Deirdre Shesgreen in an interview earlier this month.
Pompeo is now believed to be mulling a return to the campaign trail. He may go for a Senate seat from Kansas, but there also is speculation he’s laying the groundwork for a run for Kansas governor or, eventually, the White House. There’s also speculation among Washington insiders that Pompeo wants to be Defense secretary before leaving the administration.
Pompeo and his supporters are annoyed by the chatter. “He’s not thinking about his political future,” the person close to Pompeo insisted. “He’s focused on being secretary of State and focused on the mission of being secretary of State.”
One reason Pompeo’s political ambitions have come under fresh scrutiny is because he’s visited a handful of U.S. states in recent weeks, including Iowa, a key stop for White House hopefuls, as well as Texas and Kansas. While each visit had some official reason — he spoke at an energy conference in Texas, for instance — it also raised Pompeo’s national profile.
“American diplomacy around the globe protects U.S. citizens, bolsters our national security and creates new opportunities for American businesses, and that’s a message that every single American deserves to hear,” said Palladino, the State Department deputy spokesman.
“Further,” he added, “every recent secretary of State has taken trips inside of the United States — Secretary Pompeo simply visited Iowa, Kansas and Texas, places often flown over by his predecessors, instead of Martha’s Vineyard, Boston and the Hamptons.”
Pompeo did at one point seemed to rule out a Senate run. But in one of a slew of recent interviews with Kansas news organizations, he nodded to his evangelical Christian beliefs in suggesting he might change his mind. “I try to just avoid ruling things out when there’s others who are in control,” Pompeo said. “The Lord will get me to the right place.”
In several of his interviews, Pompeo has stressed that he wants the State Department to recruit more from the American heartland. “I don’t just want folks working here who come from Washington or Boston or New York,” he told one outlet.
Pompeo’s suggestion that State Department staffers aren’t representative of the U.S. population appears to be based on flawed data, but nonetheless it’s the type of message that could play well with the Republican base.
Pompeo’s religious references, devotion to Trump and willingness to push back at lawmakers could also burnish his credentials with the GOP base, which continues to cheer the president, analysts say. Last week, in response to a question from a Christian news outlet, Pompeo said it’s “possible” that Trump is today’s version of the Bible’s Queen Esther, destined to protect the Jewish people from Iran.
“If you’re Mike Pompeo, and you think that you are the natural heir to the Trump base, what does that mean?” asked Philippe Reines, a longtime Clinton aide. “It doesn’t mean playing nice with Congress. It doesn’t mean playing by the rules. It doesn’t mean being a good witness or a forthright witness or running a responsive department.
“The guy is ambitious,” Reines said. “He’s a political player.”
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