Defending Trump has made Pompeo the most powerful secretary of state in decades

Analysis: Pompeo's fiery defense of Trump's attack on an Iranian general has cemented his unusually close alliance with the White House.

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By Andrea Mitchell

With fiery defenses of President Donald Trump's order to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Mike Pompeo has emerged as the most powerful secretary of state in decades, rivaling Henry Kissinger, James Baker and Condoleezza Rice for his unchallenged access to the Oval Office.

After the forced departures of national security adviser John Bolton, a notable hawk, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, a more cautious, pragmatic military adviser, Pompeo is the sole survivor of Trump's original national security team. He is far more experienced than Robert O'Brien, who replaced Bolton, and Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Unlike Esper, who pushed back against the president's recent threat to bomb Iran's cultural sites if Iran sought revenge for Soleimani's death, Pompeo argued forcefully Tuesday that Trump had not suggested targeting Iran's cultural sites. Destroying cultural sites is considered a war crime, forbidden by a 1954 agreement signed by the United States.

But on Air Force One on Sunday night, the president clearly suggested that was under consideration, telling reporters: "They're allowed to kill our people. They're allowed to torture and maim our people. They're allowed to use roadside bombs and blow up our people. And we're not allowed to touch their cultural sites? It doesn't work that way."

When those comments were read back to Pompeo on Tuesday, he seemed to come up with his own interpretation of international law. "I was unambiguous on Sunday," he said. "It is completely consistent with what the president has said. ... Every action we take will be consistent with the international rule of law."

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Pompeo, who is a graduate of Harvard Law School and was first in his class at the U.S. Military Academy, was a prominent member of the House committee that grilled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2015 for 11 hours about her responsibility for the deaths of four Americans in a terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012.

Many diplomatic observers believe the Benghazi episode animated Pompeo and Trump when they watched as pro-Iran rioters tried to storm the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, solidifying their determination to strike back forcefully against Iran.

Top officials told NBC News that Pompeo upset some of his own team by canceling a long-delayed trip to Ukraine to ride herd on the response to Iran. The stakes were very high: The New York Times reported Sunday that Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were the two hawks on the national security team arguing for a strong response to Iranian aggression. And The Washington Post reported this week that Pompeo had been "morose" last summer when, with only 10 minutes to spare, the president decided not to respond militarily after Iran downed a U.S. surveillance drone.

Trump also restrained his advisers in September by not retaliating when Iranian proxies struck Saudi Arabia's largest oil field. Multiple diplomatic sources said the Saudis were distressed by the lack of U.S. support, to the point of reaching out to their arch-rival Iran for back channel diplomacy through Pakistan.

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All of that set the backdrop for what critics called an overcorrection with the strike that killed Soleimani. Pressed on Tuesday to further clarify his claim that the strike had been based on intelligence of an "imminent threat," Pompeo added to the confusion by saying, "If you're looking for imminence, you need to look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Soleimani."

Was it a future threat or past aggression that led to the strike? The only thing clear from the secretary's remarks was that he was in lockstep with the president.

Pompeo has so far withstood intense criticism privately within the State Department and publicly from former top U.S. diplomats for not having come to the aid of Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and for not having put a stop to Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani's parallel diplomacy with Ukraine, both of which were investigated by the House impeachment committees.

He has declined to furnish any emails or other State Department documents to House investigators, a posture that severely damaged morale among foreign service officers, according to multiple accounts. Many of the veterans had high hopes upon Pompeo's arrival because of his powerful alliance with the president, in contrast with his fired predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who remained an outsider.

The bottom line: With less experienced new leaders at the Pentagon, an acting director of national intelligence and an untested national security adviser, Mike Pompeo is very much in charge.

He has acknowledged ambitions to run for president one day, but he declared definitively Tuesday that he will not run for the open Senate seat this year in his home state, Kansas, telling reporters, "I've said that I'm going to stay serving as secretary of state so long as President Trump shall have me."