Pompeo’s First Mission: Restoring State Department’s ‘Swagger’

In opening remarks to employees, the new secretary of state appeared eager to show the State Department he is no Rex Tillerson.

New U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to State Department employees in Washington, D.C. on May 1, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
New U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks to State Department employees in Washington, D.C. on May 1, 2018. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In his first week on the job, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted off to Brussels to meet his NATO counterparts and bounced around the Middle East. Now, on his first day back in Washington, he is re-shining the spotlight on the role of America’s top diplomat.

But he says one of his top priorities now is to restore “swagger” to the State Department after a rough 14 months under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. Pompeo immediately tried to set himself apart in brief welcoming remarks to State Department employees on Tuesday that were heavy on flash but light on substance.

Pompeo told staff they were “patriots and great Americans … because [they] want to be an important part of America’s face to the world.” He also said President Donald Trump, along with most of his Cabinet, would visit the State Department on Wednesday for his formal swearing in ceremony, which would be Trump’s first visit to the State Department despite being in the White House for more than 15 months.

The move signals Pompeo has a lot of sway with Trump — a stark contrast to Tillerson, who often found himself at odds with the president and his inner circle, pushing the State Department to the periphery of foreign policy.

And even if some of the diplomatic corps disagrees with Pompeo over policy, there’s a sense of cautious optimism on how he’ll handle the department internally, five current and former senior State Department officials tell Foreign Policy. They’re keen to put the Tillerson era in the past, still stinging from waves of hiring freezes and cuts, a bottlenecked management system, and a now-infamous attempt to redesign the department that alienated the rank and file.

“I feel like I know you,” the new top diplomat told employees, citing his work with them as a member of Congress traveling to embassies around the world. “I have a great deal to learn about the State Department and how we perform our mission, but as people, I’m confident I know who you are,” he added.

He used the speech to set himself apart from Tillerson, who began his tenure at Foggy Bottom by openly saying he didn’t know anyone at the State Department or how it worked.

Despite the lofty rhetoric, some State Department officials still quietly express reservations about Pompeo’s record, including his past homophobic and Islamophobic statements and how he pilloried the State Department during the congressional Benghazi investigation, all of which came up during his bruising confirmation battle on Capitol Hill.

Last week, an undersecretary of state and two assistant secretaries of state were confirmed by the Senate in another sign Pompeo was preparing to restaff the department, where Tillerson left many top positions unfilled for more than a year as he culled the top ranks of the professional diplomatic corps. Pompeo is also widely expected to bring in a new undersecretary of state for political affairs, Paula Dobriansky, a veteran senior State Department official under former President George W. Bush who is held in high regard in Washington’s foreign-policy circles. The news was first reported by Bloomberg on April 25 and confirmed to FP by two senior officials and two former officials, though the White House has not formally announced the decision. Dobriansky did not respond to a request for comment.

Career diplomat Tom Shannon is currently undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-highest-ranking position at the State Department. He announced his retirement in February but pledged to stay on until he was replaced.

“We’re in wait and see mode, but for now … we’ll take it,” says one source of Pompeo. “Swagger beats redesign.”

In an email sent to staff Tuesday morning obtained by FP, Pompeo said he would outline more details in the near future on his management style and how he plans to help Foggy Bottom regain its footing.

“I’ll have more to say in the days and weeks ahead about how we will get our swagger back and serve productivity on behalf of America,” he wrote. “I know we will deliver for our nation.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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