The important thing to understand about Mike Pompeo, Trump’s second and current secretary of state, is that, although he became famous for demanding answers, he treats questions posed to him with scorn.
Pompeo became a member of the House of Representatives in 2011. It was in that role that, during the hearings on a terrorist attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, Pompeo aggressively questioned and even blamed the then secretary of state Hillary Clinton for the death of four Americans. Although the hearing cleared Clinton of any wrongdoing, Pompeo insisted in an addendum to the committee report that her actions had been “morally reprehensible”.
This caught Donald Trump’s attention. He made Pompeo his first director of the CIA. Then, after firing his original secretary of state, Rex Tillerson (who reportedly called the president a “moron”), Trump picked Pompeo to be the US’s top diplomat. Pompeo came in with goodwill; Tillerson had instituted a hiring freeze and, because he didn’t have Trump’s ear, the department had been sidelined. Pompeo arrived posting on social media about returning “swagger” to the State Department.
His tenure has featured less swagger and more smirking at anyone in the House, Senate or in the press who dares ask him a basic question. He danced around questions put by the Senate foreign relations committee after the president’s summit with Vladimir Putin in the summer of 2018, accusing the senior member of that committee, New Jersey’s Bob Menendez, of performing a “political soliloquy”.
When that same year Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, met, Trump announced that Kim had agreed to denuclearise and they just hadn’t written that part down in the agreement. When a reporter asked the most obvious question – why would you not take the time to write it down? – Pompeo called it “ludicrous”. When a reporter in Tennessee asked him last year if he had done enough to protect Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador who was smeared and replaced so that Trump could pressure the Ukrainian president to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s actions in Ukraine, Pompeo told the reporter that she should be “careful”.
There was also the little matter of Pompeo taking trips back to his home state of Kansas, where he was rumoured to be planning a Senate run. Menendez called for an investigation into whether Pompeo had violated the Hatch Act, which forbids officials from using their position to engage in partisan politics. Pompeo, ultimately, didn’t answer for that, either.
Now he’s once again being pressed for answers. Pompeo has held taxpayer-funded dinners and one of them reportedly featured guests with ties to Kansas. Democrats are suggesting that state held more political value for Pompeo than foreign policy value for the country, with Menendez asking, “What type of foreign-affairs work goes on in Kansas?” Menendez and the House committees on oversight and foreign affairs have all asked for guest lists from the dinners.
Perhaps more problematically for Pompeo, he also reportedly urged Trump to fire Steve Linick, a State Department inspector general who was investigating Pompeo for bypassing Congress and approving emergency arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and also for using staff to run errands. Pompeo has dismissed the idea that he did anything wrong as “crazy stuff”, and has argued that “this is all coming from Menendez”, reminding reporters that the senator was indicted in 2015 for allegedly participating in a bribery scheme (a mistrial was declared in 2017).
The relevance of Menendez’s previous indictment notwithstanding, the pressure is not, in fact, coming from one senator. The chairs of the House committees on foreign affairs and oversight, and subcommittees on government operations and oversight and investigations, for example, have all signed a letter demanding that Linick should be reinstated. They also asked for more information, such as communications about Linick’s termination.
There’s a sense that things are coming full circle for Pompeo. “Michael R Pompeo was just three years into his national political career when he was tapped to join the panel to probe the killing of a US ambassador in Benghazi – an investigation that ended up focusing intently on secretary of state Hillary Clinton,” Politico Playbook PM reminded readers. “Now, Pompeo is in Foggy Bottom and Congress is beginning to take an intense interest in him… Of course, there’s a difference between an investigation into a murdered diplomat and one into glitzy dinners and a fired IG. But the tables have turned on Pompeo, and House Democrats are signalling that they believe it’s time for his turn in the ringer.”
So far, Pompeo, who – depending on who in Washington, DC you ask – either demon-strated a passion for getting answers or pushed a conspiracy theory during the Benghazi hearings, has managed not to answer for his own actions during his tenure as secretary of state. It is possible that Linick’s firing will change that.
But so, too, is it possible that, just as he responded to questions on Trump’s trips to meet Kim Jong-un and Putin, Pompeo will respond to probing of his own part in the smearing of a high-level diplomat, and the ethics of his trips to his home state of Kansas, with a smirk, a shake of his head, a “ridiculous” or “ludicrous”, and that will be that. It would leave Mike Pompeo, the US’s top diplomat, in power – or in the Senate, if that’s what he chooses – never really answering for his own actions, morally reprehensible or otherwise.
This article appears in the 27 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The peak