Mike Pompeo may have a partisan reputation, hawkish instincts and little diplomatic experience, but morale at the State Department is so low that many career diplomats would be glad to see the CIA director replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
Anything, they say, would be better than this.
And so, amid fresh reports Thursday that President Donald Trump may soon oust Tillerson and shift Pompeo to Foggy Bottom, the buzz within Washington foreign policy circles was one of very cautious optimism.
Current and former State officials said they’d lay aside their many reservations about Pompeo in the hopes that his close relationship with Trump might empower their struggling department. Under Tillerson, whose ties to the president have been strained, State officials have felt largely sidelined from policy-making and complain that their department has lost stature and influence.
“Rex has done so much damage that people at State will give Mike a chance and hope for the best,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official who now serves as president of the Global Situation Room, a crisis management consulting firm.
The New York Times reported Thursday that the change may come within weeks, and Tillerson was spotted at the White House on Thursday after apparently backing out of plans to deliver a major speech to commemorate World AIDS Day.
POLITICO reported earlier this month that Pompeo is Trump’s likely choice to succeed Tillerson and that he has told associates he would accept the secretary of state position if Trump offers it.
But the White House downplayed the reports. “There are no personnel announcements at this time,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. “Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department, and the entire Cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump’s administration.”
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said White House chief of staff John Kelly, whom the Times reported was behind a plan to push Tillerson out, had called the department Thursday morning to deny the claim. Tillerson, she said, is continuing in his role, including preparing for an imminent trip to Europe.
“The secretary is someone whose feathers don’t get ruffled very easily. He kind of brushed this off today. He’s heard these kinds of stories before,” Nauert said, while acknowledging that Tillerson serves Trump’s pleasure.
A few months ago, the notion of Pompeo serving as the nation’s chief diplomat sent shudders through much of Foggy Bottom.
As a Republican congressman, Pompeo was known for his highly partisan and hardline instincts — especially when it came to U.S. rivals like Iran. The Kansan was one of Congress’s loudest opponents of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which many at the State Department consider a diplomatic triumph. Today, Pompeo skeptically challenges intelligence reports that say Iran is upholding its end of the agreement.
Pompeo, a former Army tank officer who attended West Point and Harvard, also was one of the most vocal Capitol Hill critics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accusing her of trying to cover up the truth behind the deadly attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
He has no formal diplomatic experience and is widely considered a hawk skeptical of the kind of international deal-making, even with America’s enemies, that many diplomats consider a necessary part of U.S. foreign policy.
That profile is not lost on current and former State Department officials, some of whom consider Pompeo to hold radical foreign policy views.
“As terrible as Tillerson has been as secretary … his substantive views on individual crises are more moderate than those of the hardliners in the administration, including Pompeo,” one former senior State Department official said.
But the disappointment in Tillerson’s performance runs so deep that many are eager to see him leave.
Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO, took over as secretary of state in February with ample good will in the department. Many hoped his background leading a global corporation would translate well into dealing with foreign leaders and running a major arm of the government.
But confidence in Tillerson fell rapidly over the next few months. His critics said he became isolated, secretive and unwilling to employ the policy and cultural expertise of the thousands of career Civil and Foreign Service officials who work for him.
Many State Department officials also are upset about how Tillerson has managed the bureaucracy he leads. He has seemed fine with implementing Trump’s proposal to cut the department’s budget by roughly a third — which even many leading Republican lawmakers oppose — and has been pursuing a plan to “redesign” the department that many fear will lead to substantial staffing cuts and ultimately weaken U.S. diplomacy.
Perhaps more than anything, State officials are unhappy with how Tillerson is believed to have lost the confidence of Trump and Trump’s top aides, meaning the department’s influence has waned. Tillerson’s relationship with Trump soured so much that the secretary did not deny reports that he’d called the president a “moron” to other officials.
Foreign leaders haven’t always been sure whether Tillerson was speaking for Trump, who reportedly derided his secretary of state as being too “establishment” in his thinking. For instance, Tillerson has tried to keep Trump from abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran, despite Trump’s strong dislike for the agreement, which he is still threatening to scuttle.
The president would often undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic efforts. In early October, shortly after Tillerson said diplomatic options were still on the table in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program, Trump tweeted that the secretary of state is “wasting his time” trying to talk to Pyongyang.
Pompeo, on the other hand, has a strong rapport with Trump and his instincts seem more in line with the president’s. So foreign officials may view Pompeo as a more reliable surrogate, while State Department officials hope his presence at the helm will translate into more influence for their department.
“Tillerson has been such a disappointment,” said a serving State Department official. “I’m looking forward to leadership that will support and advocate on behalf of the agency they lead instead of working so hard to undermine our efforts.”
Several State Department officials said they hoped that Pompeo’s arrival would mean the end for handful of top Tillerson aides whom many blame for keeping the secretary isolated. Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, is especially unpopular at State, and even within the White House.
“Pompeo should decline to keep on board in any capacity every single member of Tillerson’s senior staff,” one current State Department official said.
Still, there were plenty of current and former State officials wondering on Thursday whether it is better to stick with “the devil you know,” as one put it.
Many wondered whether Pompeo would keep pursuing Tillerson’s plans to restructure the department, an effort that has lasted several months already and cost significant sums in outside consulting fees. Others worried about Pompeo’s hawkish instincts on foreign policy, especially on what to do about Iran.
“Pompeo’s approach to Iran will definitely cause friction, but if he is more inclusive about overall decision-making and do more to engage with career officials, he will still be an upgrade over Tillerson,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department official now with the Center for a New American Security.
“Maybe we’ll come to regret Tillerson’s departure,” added a serving State Department official, “but he’s done nothing to earn my continued trust.”
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