Politics & Government

What’s behind Mike Pompeo’s rapid rise? He’s a steady hand from ‘central casting’

Mike Pompeo won't say a 'damn thing' to the media

Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, said during a televised Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump on Monday, June 12, 2017, that, following CIA tradition, he would not say a "damn thing" to the media. (Video courtesy of the White House)
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Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA, said during a televised Cabinet meeting with President Donald Trump on Monday, June 12, 2017, that, following CIA tradition, he would not say a "damn thing" to the media. (Video courtesy of the White House)

As a Wichita congressman, Mike Pompeo developed a reputation as a brash, hard-line conservative. He was quick to butt heads with Democrats and made a name for himself pursuing Hillary Clinton over her handling of the Benghazi attacks as U.S. secretary of state.

He now is poised to take over that same position — the next step in a meteoric rise from Wichita businessman to a man potentially fourth in line for the presidency in less than a decade.

President Donald Trump ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday and named Pompeo, the current CIA director, as his replacement. The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate must still confirm the appointment.

The departure of Tillerson was long anticipated and Pompeo had often been spoken of as a likely replacement.

Pompeo has "tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We're always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good. I think Mike Pompeo will be a truly great secretary of state,” Trump said outside the White House on Tuesday.

Mark Kahrs, the Kansas Republican national committeeman, said he thinks the “president trusts his judgment, respects his intellect, his military background and I think they see eye to eye on a lot of the world issues.”

"Whereas the president and Rex Tillerson did not. And I think the president deserves to have a secretary of state that supports his agenda internationally and nationally, and I think he'll have that with Mike Pompeo."

From ‘central casting’

Pompeo has a take-charge personality, said Sen. Pat Roberts. He said Pompeo has done a good job at the CIA, where “the best news … is that there isn’t any news and that there’s no leaks.”

Pompeo often delivers briefings in person to Trump, a sign that he has the president’s trust, Roberts said.

Pompeo was born in California. He studied mechanical engineering at West Point and served in the Army. He holds a degree from Harvard Law School.

He moved to Wichita in the mid-’90s, where he helped found Thayer Aerospace. He also served as president of Sentry International, an oil production equipment company.

“His time serving in the military when there was an Iron Curtain on the frontline in West Germany, being a business person with business all over the globe, his time on the Intelligence Committee, his time in the leadership position at the CIA — I think it all adds up in kind of a very nice mix of experiences in the public sector, private sector in different parts of the globe,” said Alan Cobb, president and CEO of the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, who has known Pompeo for years.

Pompeo rode a wave of Tea Party anger into Congress into 2010. He was sharply critical of President Obama’s administration, including Clinton’s handling of the September 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of an American ambassador.

He served on a House panel that investigated the attack and helped write a separate report accusing Clinton of downplaying the attack in the run-up to Obama’s reelection.

Although Pompeo took on Democrats directly, he largely avoided Republican infighting, said Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University in Wichita. Fox said Pompeo presented himself to voters as a conservative Republican, but one who was responsible and professional.

“He was a good, solid, central casting conservative Republican,” Fox said. “Now obviously, you talk to people on the left side of the aisle and you talk to Democrats and you’ll get a different opinion. He can be dismissive. He could be condescending — but never, in my experience, to anybody he hadn’t already identified as a political opponent.”

Pompeo’s past comments on Islam may stir controversy as he seeks to move into the role of the nation’s chief diplomat. Muslim Advocates, an organization based in Washington, D.C., objected to Pompeo’s selection.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Pompeo said the silence of American Islamic leaders made them “potentially complicit in these acts and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”

“This not a man who can be trusted in the cabinet,” said Scott Simpson, public advocacy director at Muslim Advocates. He called on senators to speak up against Pompeo’s nomination.

Raj Goyle, a Democrat who ran against Pompeo in 2010, said Pompeo never spoke out against a billboard in the final days before the election that said "Vote American, vote Pompeo" overlaid on a stylized U.S. flag. Goyle is a U.S.-born citizen of Indian heritage. Pompeo’s campaign said it was not involved in the ad.

“In the campaign for Congress in 2010 I did not see a lot of diplomatic skills,” Goyle said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee member, said “the jury is out” on Pompeo’s nomination.

“The Mr. Pompeo I knew as a House member was very spontaneous and often with comments that I found difficult,” Feinstein said. “He hasn’t been that way as CIA director, which is appreciated. The question for me is what kind of person will he be as head of the department of state. Will he be a divider? Will he bring the community together?”

Chemistry with Trump

Pompeo’s past experience navigating the pitfalls of party politics may help him as secretary. He has also largely avoided controversy while serving as CIA director, with few reports of the kind of blow-up disagreements with Trump that have plagued other administration officials, including Tillerson.

"He's an extremely good diplomat, Mike is," said Kansas Republican Party chairman Kelly Arnold. "...He comes to the table well prepared."

Trump told reporters on Tuesday morning that “with Mike we’ve had a very good chemistry right from the beginning.”

Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican and friend of Pompeo’s who worked closely with him during his time in the U.S. House, said Pompeo’s chemistry with Trump started early on.

"I just think they hit it off," Jordan said. "They just have a wonderful and close relationship and I think that's good. I've got the utmost confidence in Mike that he can do the job. More importantly the president believes Mike the right guy for the job."

Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Pompeo’s rapid rise may stem from his ability to act as a stabilizing force in Trump’s cabinet. Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department was marked by low morale among career staff and ill-received efforts to trim the agency.

By contrast, Pompeo may offer a steadier organizational hand.

“If confirmed, I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the President’s foreign policy. In my time as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I have worked alongside many remarkable Foreign Service officers and Department of State leaders serving here in the United States and on the very edge of freedom,” Pompeo said in a statement.

What will he do on Russia?

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he hopes Pompeo will “turn over a new leaf” as secretary of state and toughen policies toward Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin.

Trump has repeatedly rejected suggestions that his campaign colluded with the Russian government ahead of the 2016 election. But Pompeo has stood up for the conclusion of American intelligence agencies that Russia did meddle in the election.

“Mike has never been hesitant to offer an opinion contrary to where the majority is going and if he has a strong view otherwise I think he’ll tell (Trump) and I think (that) has happened with the daily briefing he’s given the president,” Roberts said.

Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has been sharply critical of Trump, said Pompeo had made some good statements on Russia, “acknowledging the obvious.” He said he is anxious to see whether Pompeo will stick to those views.

Contributing: Bryan Lowry, Anita Kumar, Emma Dumain and William Douglas of McClatchy and the Associated Press

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