The calls were placed quietly to top U.S. diplomats who had resigned in droves over the past year. The message: Mike Pompeo, nominated to become the next secretary of state, wanted them back.
Pompeo, currently the director of the CIA, also telephoned Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, the last two Democrats to run the State Department.
The gestures — the likes of which Rex Tillerson, President Donald Trump’s first secretary of state, bypassed — were similarly well received by career diplomats in the runup to what is expected to be a contentious confirmation hearing for Pompeo.
On Thursday, Pompeo’s charm offensive will face its greatest test as he testifies in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has vowed to vote against him in part because of Pompeo’s past support for enhanced interrogation techniques that have been likened to torture. Democrats have promised to needle a nominee whom critics doubt can rally the Middle East against extremists with a record of anti-Muslim remarks and ties to anti-Islam groups.
In a written opening statement filed with the committee, Pompeo promised to avoid past missteps with North Korea and said that the president hoped negotiations with European partners would sufficiently toughen the Iran nuclear pact to make it acceptable for him.
“If confirmed, it will be an immediate personal priority to work with those partners to see if such a fix is achievable,” he said. Negotiators from Europe have been working with their U.S. counterparts on such an agreement since Tuesday at the State Department, their fourth such conclave.
Pompeo also promised a tougher policy toward Russia.
“Russia continues to act aggressively, enabled by years of soft policy toward that aggression,” he wrote. “That’s now over.”
At the State Department, Pompeo’s nomination has, like the blossoming cherry trees along the nearby National Mall, been greeted as a harbinger of new life. Gone is the deep gloom engendered by Tillerson’s contemptuous treatment of veteran diplomats, staff cuts, leaderless drift and unsuccessful reorganization project.
Having already moved away or accepted lucrative jobs, many of the foreign service officers declined Pompeo’s recent offer to return. But they appreciated the outreach nonetheless, according to a former senior diplomat who had talked to others similarly contacted but spoke on the condition of anonymity because the discussions were intended to be private.
Pompeo’s call to Clinton was particularly surprising, considering his fulminations against her as “morally reprehensible” when he was a member of the House Intelligence Committee after the Benghazi attacks in 2012.
“He’s reached back to every former living secretary of state, again no matter what party, to help receive whatever thoughts, guidance, insights that they would offer up,” said Brian Bulatao, the No. 3 official at the CIA who has known Pompeo since their first day as cadets at West Point. “But that’s the kind of style he has. No one’s going to outprepare, outhustle or outwork Mike.”
Given Paul’s opposition, Pompeo may not receive the Senate committee’s blessing, which would be an embarrassing snub. Republicans could still pass his nomination to the full Senate, where 14 Democrats and an independent voted for his nomination as CIA director.
But none of those votes are assured this time. He has been meeting with moderates in hopes of persuading at least a few Democrats and independents to back him. Liberal groups are mobilizing to oppose him.
“Mike Pompeo is absolutely the wrong choice for secretary of state,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., wrote on Twitter.
Even Democratic staff members say Pompeo is likely to be confirmed.
Pompeo’s hard-line foreign policy pronouncements as a conservative four-term Republican congressman from Kansas have caused some unease among the left-leaning, altruistic set at the State Department. In the past, he denounced the Iran nuclear deal, suggested that he supports leadership change in North Korea and supported enhanced interrogation techniques.
But his close connection with Trump and record of encouraging career employees at the CIA have led many to hope that Pompeo may once again make their diplomatic efforts relevant.
For many, the change could not come at a more important time as pressing problems pile up — including a looming U.S. military strike on Syria, increasingly toxic relations with Russia and a possible trade war with China.
In many ways, Pompeo is already the administration’s most important diplomat, having played the primary role in facilitating Trump’s risky diplomatic overture to North Korea through a channel that runs between the CIA and its counterpart in Pyongyang, the Reconnaissance General Bureau.
Those who have long known Pompeo say he is perfectly suited for this moment. He graduated first in his class from the U.S. Military Academy and became a tank commander in Germany. He left the military after just five years, as a captain, to attend Harvard Law School.
Mary Ann Glendon, a law professor at Harvard who hired Pompeo as a research assistant, said that she “spent a lot of time talking to him about his future plans” — specifically, making his fortune and then going into politics.
“And he did it,” she said.
Not quite. After working for four years as a lawyer in Washington, Pompeo moved to Wichita, Kansas, where he and three friends from West Point enlisted investors to buy four aircraft supply companies. They hoped to transform the industry and make themselves wealthy in the process. But the merged company, Thayer Aerospace, never succeeded.
“The timing could have been better,” said Jim Gero, chairman of Thayer’s board of directors. “When I look at my various investments, it wasn’t the best.”
After 10 years, Pompeo and his partners sold Thayer, and he turned to marketing Chinese-made oil field equipment. Whether he appropriately disclosed the China venture at his Senate confirmation hearing last year for the CIA post may become an issue at Thursday’s hearing.
In 2010, Pompeo joined a crowded field of Republicans vying to win a House seat from Wichita. With substantial donations from Koch Industries, the sprawling industrial conglomerate that is based there and controlled by billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, who donate heavily to conservative causes, Pompeo defeated his opponents in the Tea Party wave that year.
Pompeo’s financial disclosure reports reveal few assets. He was determined to rescue Thayer Aerospace from the worst of its difficulties, said Bulatao, who was one of his partners. But his shortfalls as a businessman could endear him to diplomats who believed that Tillerson’s extraordinary success as the chairman of Exxon Mobil made him inflexible and arrogant at the State Department.
Tillerson isolated himself in his executive suite, rarely answered emails or phone calls even from the nation’s highest officials, and gave his cellphone number to almost no one. When the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, tried to reach Tillerson on his final trip as secretary, Kelly had to call one of Tillerson’s aides.
In his opening statement, Pompeo promised to be different.
“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” he wrote. “I don’t ever stay sequestered on the executive floor of any building.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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