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As Trump's top diplomat, Pompeo sought to position himself as the president's successor

In the final days of the Trump administration, Pompeo issued a flurry of decisions and promoted his record as a loyal servant of the president.
Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump share a laugh during a cabinet meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump share a laugh during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in 2018.Olivier Douliery- / Getty Images

In the final days of Donald Trump's presidency, one top deputy has remained steadfastly loyal, even as others have distanced themselves or resigned in protest.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has doubled down on his defense of Trump, criticizing those who have broken ranks and ingratiating himself with Trump's followers, who will be vital for his own presidential ambitions.

"I think history will remember us very well," Pompeo told a group of House Republicans only days after Trump egged on a mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

"While I think we all think the violence that took place in the place where you all work in the Capitol was tragic, I've watched people walk away from this president already. And they are not listening to the American people. Not remotely," Pompeo said.

A future tied to Trump

Pompeo's close alignment with Trump defined his tenure as America's top diplomat. Both his supporters and his critics believe Pompeo worked to place himself in the line of political succession, whether Trump remained king or became kingmaker.

Pompeo embraced Trump's skepticism of European allies and international organizations, using a brash tone that echoed Trump's. He ignored an unwritten rule that secretaries of state were supposed to avoid bare-knuckled partisan brawls, never hesitating to take shots at the previous administration or Democrats in Congress.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo holds a news briefing at the State Department in February 2019.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images file

He recently described as "stupid" former President Barack Obama's support for a landmark arms control treaty, which was backed by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

He achieved what few were able to accomplish inside the administration: building a direct line to Trump. His predecessor, Rex Tillerson, along with other Cabinet members and senior officials, ended up clashing with Trump, triggering his wrath, often in tweets. But Pompeo survived without a major public falling-out.

As a result, foreign governments believed Pompeo had Trump's ear.

"When you travel around the world and meet with leaders, or when you speak to them on the phone, they need to know that you have a relationship with the president that means that you are in fact speaking on behalf of him," Pompeo said in a recent interview with Bloomberg.

Pompeo's admirers, and even some of his critics, say he steered Trump in a more constructive direction.

Michael Steele, a former chair of the Republican Party who is an outspoken critic of Trump, said that without Pompeo on the job, Trump could have caused more damage to America's interests in the world.

"If you look at the outcomes versus what the outcomes could have been, I'm kind of glad that Mike Pompeo was there. I think people overlook that," said Steele, an MSNBC contributor.

Losing the rank and file

Career diplomats were initially relieved at Pompeo's arrival, as he scrapped Tillerson's unpopular initiatives to overhaul the State Department and elevated a number of experienced foreign service officers to senior positions.

But then came the Ukraine impeachment inquiry, with Trump and his supporters castigating diplomats who refused to abet an effort to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Pompeo chose not to cross Trump, and staffers at the State Department were shocked when Marie "Masha" Yovanovitch, a seasoned diplomat, was abruptly removed as ambassador to Ukraine.

"That was so deeply unsettling for people in the State Department, because Masha is respected and liked," a former senior U.S. diplomat said.

In a blow to Pompeo, Michael McKinley, a career diplomat who was his senior adviser, resigned in anger over the handling of Yovanovitch and other colleagues. After the Ukraine episode, Pompeo lost the confidence of many in the rank and file.

Laying the groundwork for 2024

As Trump's term comes to a close, most senior figures are keeping low profiles, but not Pompeo. He has issued a flurry of policy decisions and tweets, portraying himself as a history-making secretary of state and a loyal servant of the president.

This month, Pompeo overturned decades of bipartisan policy and lifted restrictions on government contacts with Taiwan, ignored appeals from humanitarian aid organizations and labeled Houthi forces in Yemen as terrorists, designated Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism and declared without offering evidence that Iran had become a "home base" for Al Qaeda.

The rapid-fire pronouncements will create some headaches for the Biden administration, as they clearly run counter to the Biden team's plans. The hawkish policymaking, however, it likely to go down well with Republican voters, including pro-Trump Cuban Americans.

Pompeo's recent moves are "not just designed to make it difficult for Biden diplomatically but also so that he could go to his core constituencies and claim, 'I stood up for you, unlike that other guy,'" said Laura Kennedy, a retired ambassador who was a foreign service officer for 40 years.

Sanctions as weapon of choice

Pompeo argues that America under Trump has pushed back against adversaries and rogue regimes, stood up to China on trade and other issues and pulled out of international organizations or multilateral arrangements that were no longer serving the country's interests. Critics say the Trump administration alienated allies, weakened America's soft power and cozied up to dictators.

Mike Pompeo shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, North Korea, in April 2018.The White House / Getty Images file

Sanctions became the favored diplomatic weapon of choice for Pompeo and the Trump administration. But sanctions against Venezuela failed to topple the Maduro regime in Caracas. International sanctions helped push North Korea to the negotiating table, but the talks quickly collapsed. Pyongyang's nuclear and missile arsenal has continued to grow since Trump entered office.

A wave of sanctions against Iran, a major focus for Pompeo, has inflicted serious economic damage, but the regime remains in power, continues to maintain proxies across the Middle East and is now closer to securing a nuclear weapon.

"Under Secretary Pompeo's leadership, the U.S. has forged historic achievements," the State Department said, citing a list of policies, including the recognition of Israel by several Arab governments.

Pompeo and the Trump administration did score a genuine diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East when the United Arab Emirates and several other Arab countries normalized relations with Israel for the first time. While the initiatives were led by Jared Kushner, the State Department contends that the Iran "maximum pressure" campaign helped lay the ground for Arab countries to make the leap.

Blurring the line

Pompeo's domestic travel, his partisan bomb-throwing and his meetings with GOP donors and evangelical audiences all prompted questions about whether he was using his office to propel his political career.

Pompeo also threw lavish dinners in the opulent Madison Room at the State Department, as reported by NBC News, in which Republican donors were invited, as well as GOP lawmakers and Supreme Court justices.

The perception that he was blurring the line between legitimate government business and political activity prompted inquiries from Congress, the Office of Special Counsel and the State Department's inspector general.

Pompeo recommended that Trump fire the inspector general, Steve Linick, who had opened several investigations into him. The decision led Democratic lawmakers to launch their own inquiry into Linick's removal; the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., has said the investigation will continue. Pompeo maintains that the move was not retaliatory.

In his dealings with the news media, Pompeo seemed to emulate Trump, lashing out at the media as a leftist cabal intent on tarnishing Trump. He called reporters' questions at news conferences "insane," "ludicrous" and "frankly ridiculous," and he favored giving interviews to outlets known for their right-wing views.

Pompeo's acrimonious relationship with the media could play well with Republican voters if he decides to run for the GOP nomination in four years. For the moment, he has refused to talk about what he plans to do after his time at Foggy Bottom comes to an end, but he is encouraging his Twitter followers to stay tuned.

"Serving as your Secretary of State has been the honor of a lifetime," he wrote Friday. "You can keep following me @mikepompeo."