Outgoing CIA Director Mike Pompeo enjoys President Donald Trump's trust like few others. So it is little surprise that Trump entrusted Pompeo with a crucial mission: Go and sit down with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
Other CIA directors have been close to sitting presidents, but the Trump-Pompeo chemistry is noteworthy, given his relationship with some other members of his team. It seems to be warm and free of drama.
“They hit it off,” said Sen. Pat Roberts, who, like Pompeo, is a Republican from Kansas. Roberts described Pompeo as a straight shooter. “I think the president likes that, quite frankly.”
The enduring, close relationship between Pompeo and Trump is exceptional in a White House roiled by firings and infighting. Trump had few others to turn to for the secret mission earlier this month. He had fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and replaced national security adviser H.R. McMaster with John Bolton, who had yet to take up his post.
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So Trump told Pompeo to fly to Pyongyang and iron out details of an upcoming summit with Kim about his nation’s nuclear program. The Trump-Kim summit, the date and venue of which have not been settled, could be one of the signature foreign policy achievements – or failures – of his presidency.
The chemistry between Trump and Pompeo seems to be a mixture of comfort and personality, with a dash of presidential admiration for Pompeo’s military bearing.
“The president seems to value the opinions and advice from those in the military, and Director Pompeo is a West Point graduate, served in the Army,” said Sen. Jerry Moran, the junior senator from Kansas. Pompeo served six years as a congressman from a district that encompasses Wichita.
For the nearly 15 months that Pompeo was CIA director, he has appeared several times a week at the White House to offer Trump the Presidential Daily Brief, an intelligence assessment of the key events of the moment.
That has given Pompeo more face time with Trump than practically any other senior member of his administration – with the exception of Vice President Mike Pence.
David Priess, a former CIA officer who has written a book about the daily intelligence reports at the White House, said Pompeo and Pence have both stayed above the political fray.
“I don’t know who else has spent enough quality time with this president without having a scandal or reports of screaming matches and offers to resign and all of that,” Priess said. “It makes sense that the person in the national security sphere who would be the emissary speaking for the president and having that comfort level with the president would be Mike Pompeo.”
Trump cast flowers Pompeo’s way all day Wednesday. In an early morning tweet, he confirmed that “Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un in North Korea last week. Meeting went very smoothly and a good relationship was formed. Details of Summit are being worked out now. Denuclearization will be a great thing for World, but also for North Korea!”
During a working lunch with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump’s estate in Florida, Mar-a-Lago, the president said Pompeo got along with the North Korean leader “really well, really great. … He is that kind of guy, he is really smart but he gets along with people."
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, in a separate call with reporters, also noted that Pompeo “has become a very trusted adviser to the president.
“You become a trusted adviser to the president by delivering information that is helpful to him making decisions, but at the same time, respectful that he will make that ultimate decision,” she said.
Pompeo has gained a track record in recent months of meeting with leaders or senior officials of adversary nations – sometimes taking heat from Congress.
In January, Pompeo hosted a visit of two Russian intelligence officials, one of them under sanctions imposed by former President Barack Obama. The two were Alexander Bortnikov, head of the Federal Security Bureau, the KGB successor agency, and Sergey Naryshkin, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. Naryshkin is under U.S. sanctions.
“With Russia, even though we are adversaries, we have a liaison relationship where our head guy there, or gal, whatever, goes over and sees them fairly regularly and brings them back for fancy dinners and to make the rounds and stuff,” said John Sipher, a 28-year veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service.
CIA directors can travel secretly without drawing attention and, at the president’s direction, handle state-to-state relations more appropriately developed out of the spotlight.
“Often times, the CIA’s able to have relations that need to be a little under the radar,” Sipher said. “A lot of countries want to have discussions with Americans but not with the full media glare.”
The warm relationship between Pompeo and Trump has eased concerns in the intelligence community that Trump would be hostile to the CIA. In the early days of his presidency, a tweet compared intelligence officers to “Nazis,” and he saw it as a hotbed of a “deep state” opposed to his presidency.
Yet the contours of the relationship still remain out of view.
“Did Pompeo develop that relationship with the president by telling him truth to power? Or did he develop that relationship with the president by acquiescing to the president’s preconceived notions and things? We just don’t know that. But that’s a legitimate concern,” Sipher said.
Roberts, the influential senator who once chaired the intelligence committee, said Pompeo is straightforward, without being argumentative.
“He’s got the president’s ear. I think that’s what so special about it,” Roberts said.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.