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Pompeo leverages foreign policy bonafides in 2024 shadow primary

The former secretary of state is seizing the moment by arguing that Putin invaded Ukraine on Biden’s watch as he travels to key battleground states and stumps for 2022 candidates.
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NAPLES, Fla. — Mike Pompeo is running — if not for president, then for a chance to be Donald Trump’s running mate should the former president mount another campaign.

Pompeo is methodically laying the groundwork for his own 2024 presidential bid if Trump skips the race. And Trump has already told associates that Pompeo, one of the few top Cabinet officials who never lost favor with him, could make his vice presidential short list if he runs again, a person familiar with Trump’s comments said.

In speech after speech, Pompeo tells audiences how he pines to be back in government. “I miss every single minute of it,” he said last month. As he plots a return, the war in Ukraine has proven a fresh selling point. Americans heartsick over the invasion are more eager to hear from the former secretary of state now that Russia is firing missiles close to NATO allies, several Republican strategists said.

“The more important national security is, the better his chances are,” Newt Gingrich, the former House Republican speaker, said of Pompeo in an interview.

Pompeo is seizing the moment, making an argument that Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on President Joe Biden’s watch and held back when he and Trump ran America’s foreign policy. “When we were in office, the bad guys knew that we were serious and our friends knew that we would be with them,” Pompeo said during an appearance last week at the crowded Seed to Table supermarket here. “President Trump and I were determined to create the deterrence model that protected each and every one of you and created the prosperity here at home.”

Whether Pompeo or Trump deserves credit for Putin’s timing is open to debate. Other former Trump administration officials said that Putin may have refrained because he was expecting Trump to get re-elected and pull out of NATO, making Ukraine an even more vulnerable target in a second term.

Robert O’Brien, Trump’s fourth and final national security adviser, said that Trump’s “unpredictability” as commander-in-chief was a useful wild card that may account for Putin’s hesitation. “When the Russian planners considered what they would do, they had to at least consider the thought that Trump might get really pissed and commit the U.S. Marines to come destroy them,” O’Brien said in an interview.

Early jockeying ahead of 2024 has prompted a handful of potential GOP candidates to hone a message independent of Trump. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has built a base in a state that is a perennial presidential battleground. Former Vice President Mike Pence alienated Trump by refusing to overturn the 2020 election, but his defiance in upholding America’s constitutional democracy may have earned him respect among independent voters.

Pompeo is a different story. Trump plucked him from Congress and made him, first, CIA chief and then the nation’s top diplomat. For four years Pompeo allowed no distance between himself and Trump, nor is he permitting any now. People close to him say he isn’t apt to run if Trump gets in the race.

"Mike doesn't run if Trump runs," one person close to Pompeo said. "Where’s the path?"

Pompeo is working to create one should Trump bow out. He has plunged into national politics since leaving government, working to elevate his profile. He’s raised more than $4 million through a political action committee that he's using to dole out money to Republican candidates in the midterm elections. So far, he has endorsed more than 30 House and Senate candidates.

Pompeo has also been spending money on Facebook ads that are a vehicle for attracting new supporters. A few ads posted last week invited people to give their names, email addresses and cell numbers if they support “building the wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, which was one of Trump’s signature, yet unfulfilled, campaign promises.

A former Kansas congressman, Pompeo has been showing up in battleground states like Florida that have outsize influence in presidential elections, while also campaigning for Republicans locked in tough races. All are familiar methods of stockpiling chits that may prove valuable should he run for president. Earlier this month, Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, an Iowa Republican up for re-election, tweeted a picture of Pompeo along with a thank you for appearing at an event in the eastern part of the state.

Stumping for Republican candidates in the midterms is “the right thing to do for the party and it’s certainly the right thing to do for his long-term future,” Morgan Ortagus, a former Pompeo spokeswoman at the State Department and now a candidate for a House seat in Tennessee, said in an interview.

Pompeo's team declined to make him available for comment. A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to requests for comment.

Next month, Pompeo is scheduled to attend Republican fundraising events in Iowa and New Hampshire, states that traditionally hold the first two presidential nominating contests. “He has a lot of admirers and there is a tremendous amount of palpable excitement about the fact that he may be around in 2024 or beyond as a potential president or vice president,” Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative political advocacy group, said.

Asked if Pompeo would run for president in 2024, a second person close to him said: “Right now, he’s focused on 2022 and we will see who's running in 2024." This person declined to comment on whether Pompeo would be less likely to run if Trump is in the race.

One sign of Pompeo’s ambitions appears to be a concerted effort to soften his image. He cooperated with a light feature story published earlier this year in the New York Post about how he had dropped 90 pounds in six months. Complete with before-and-after photos, the article showed the human side of a nearly 300-pound politician struggling to overcome a weakness for late-night cheeseburgers.

Ever attentive to appearances, Trump has taken favorable note of Pompeo’s makeover, a person familiar with the former president’s views said.

A Pompeo campaign may echo many of the themes that Trump employed. He surprised the crowd at the Seed to Table market when he walked into the upstairs cafe, surrounded by bodyguards wearing earpieces (he still received Secret Service protection because of continuing threats from Iran). After shaking hands and posing for pictures, he gave a speech and took questions for about 20 minutes, amid the din of bartenders serving beer and waiters dropping off plates of spaghetti and oversized pretzels.

Though it’s standard practice for senior officials to praise the departments they once led, Pompeo depicted the State Department as a band of malcontents, aligning himself with Trump’s view that “deep state” forces tried to foil the Trump agenda.

If anything, he’s staking out an even more hawkish terrain than Trump when it comes to overseas threats. Then-President Trump entertained Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago home with chocolate cake in hopes of cutting trade deals; Pompeo called Xi a “jack-booted thug” during a speech last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference. In a recent interview, Trump said that he was surprised by Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine and said the Russian leader had “changed.” In his CPAC speech, Pompeo referred to Putin as the “Russian dictator.”

Some experts worry that Pompeo is embracing the sort of muscular utilitarianism that is self-defeating in an era when America sorely needs allies. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a consulting firm, pointed to Pompeo’s efforts to imbue the State Department with “swagger.”

“I don’t like the ‘swagger’ stuff,” Bremmer said. “It strikes me, frankly, as misogynistic. … I worry that Pompeo is not dispositionally well suited to the kind of careful coalition building that has happened with Ukraine.”

If Trump doesn’t run, many GOP candidates in what figures to be a whopping field will look to inherit his base. Pompeo has so far positioned himself well, observers said. 

“I never heard the president say anything bad about him, which is a pretty big deal,” Stephanie Grisham, a former Trump White House press secretary, told NBC News. 

Trump is expected to announce his plans after the midterm elections in November. He would be the instant GOP front-runner, though some voters inclined to support him sound ready for new blood.

Standing in the crowd at Seed to Table was Lisa Strahl, 55, who was in town from Indiana visiting a friend. Asked if she wants to see Trump run again, she paused.

"I don’t know. I’m more of a Trump supporter than Biden, but I would love to see him [Pompeo] run," she said. "I really enjoyed hearing him speak. I’m all pumped up now. Go America!”