Mike Pompeo, lined up as next US secretary of state, is tough-talking ex-soldier who earned Trump's trust
US President Donald Trump’s reported plan to make CIA chief Mike Pompeo his top diplomat would bring another tough-talking military veteran into his cabinet, but hand over a troubled State Department to someone with untested diplomatic skills.
US media said Thursday that Trump had decided to remove current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of oil giant ExxonMobil, after less than a year in the job.
While Tillerson and Trump are not believed to have connected well, over 10 months Pompeo has cut a path into Trump’s inner circle with ready praise of the president as he personally delivered many of the Oval Office’s crucial daily intelligence briefings.
And he has echoed Trump’s aggressive stance in foreign policy, pledging a more “vicious” CIA, saying Iran needs to pay more dearly for its behaviour, and half-joking about the prospect of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un being assassinated.
“If Kim Jong-un should vanish, given the history of the CIA, I’m just not going to talk about it,” Pompeo said in October. “Someone might think there was a coincidence.
At the same time, he has not overtly challenged Trump’s attacks on the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled extensively in last year’s presidential election, attacks that have angered many in the CIA and other spy agencies.
Pompeo, 53, has had a meteoric career that leaned heavily on political opportunities that ultimately led him to Trump.
Born and raised in southern California, he attended the US Military Academy at West Point, where he graduated top of his class in 1986, specialising in engineering.
He served in the military for five years – never in combat – and then left to attend Harvard Law School.
After working in law, he founded an engineering company in Wichita, Kansas, where financial backers included the conservative Koch brothers, oil industry billionaires.
The Kochs backed his successful first run for Congress in 2010, and legislation he promoted in his first years in the House of Representatives was seen as very friendly to them.
He moved quickly onto the House Intelligence Committee, where, as overseer of the CIA and other agencies, he was privy to the country’s deepest secrets.
But he made his name on the special committee Republicans formed to investigate the 2012 killing of a US ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. Pompeo was one of the leaders of the effort to focus that probe on then secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
If appointed secretary of state, Pompeii would inherit a department unsettled by Tillerson’s tenure, which has seen the departure of many top diplomats with some of the most senior posts left unstaffed, and veterans complaining of a lack of leadership.
As director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Pompeo has matched the tone of Trump’s foreign policy pronouncements.
“The CIA, to be successful, must be aggressive, vicious, unforgiving, relentless,” he said.
But so far there have been few signs of a radical shift.
“Pompeo obviously wants the agency to be more aggressive with paramilitary operations, he wants it to be more aggressive with espionage,” said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA official now at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
But the director can only do so much with the huge CIA bureaucracy, he noted. And covert operations are determined firstly by the president.
Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser in the White House who advised Pompeo’s transition to the CIA, said he had earned the president’s trust by managing the agency effectively.
“All the while, he has spoken his mind and defended the agency’s interests and personnel, focusing it on its core mission of being the best intelligence agency in the world at a time when it’s needed most,” Zarate said.
But others say Pompeo’s aggressive statements on Iran and North Korea – and his lack of focus on Russia – were designed to please Trump.
Pompeo “has not shed his partisan clothing,” said Ned Price, a former CIA spokesman.
“He appears not to appreciate the corrosive mix of politics and intelligence,” he said.