On His 1-Year Anniversary, Pompeo Boasts of Success

Despite budget cuts and no major achievements, the secretary of state tells employees he’s restoring the prestige of U.S. diplomacy.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks during a welcome ceremony in the lobby of the State Department in Washington on May 1, 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers remarks during a welcome ceremony in the lobby of the State Department in Washington on May 1, 2018. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A year after first being sworn in, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined his vision for a new State Department “ethos” to diplomats in a flashy speech to employees as part of his long-running plan to revive the spirits of a demoralized diplomatic corps.

The State Department emerged from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s tenure battered and bruised, hemorrhaging talent and straining under hiring freezes and an administration that appeared indifferent to input from career diplomats.

The pop songs blaring on the State Department lobby’s speakers before and after Pompeo’s speech—“Uptown Funk” and “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back”—were meant to showcase that that era was over. Despite lacking many serious diplomatic achievements, other than perhaps setting up the now-stalled talks with North Korea and further isolating Iran, Pompeo said he was restoring prestige to the department.

“I think this year has been an enormous success,” he said, speaking on the staircase of the half-filled State Department lobby on Friday to employees. “I remember where this agency was a year ago, and I told you that we needed everyone in their place, working on the mission, if we were going to achieve this mission on behalf of the president, on behalf of the United States.

That mission has become increasingly challenging, as major policy initiatives emanate from the White House and President Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. Some of the United States’ closest allies bristle at Trump’s brash style of diplomacy and doubt U.S. diplomats speak with the authority of a president who regularly goes off script, according to half a dozen current and former State Department officials who spoke to Foreign Policy. Nevertheless, Pompeo has been a tireless champion of the president’s foreign policy, defending Trump’s substance and style while trying to rally a diplomatic corps that has never dealt with a president like him.

In the middle of Pompeo’s speech, a massive banner unfurled over a wall of the lobby, unveiling his new ethos for the department—nine lines that touted the professionalism and mission of the department to advance U.S. foreign policy and values. The first line: “I am the champion of American diplomacy.”

“There was a lot of work, a lot of time spent to defining and crafting this statement,” Pompeo told the gathering. “We pored over every single word of this and made extensive consultations in writing it. You are staring at draft 30-something.”

In the year since taking office, Pompeo has sought to distinguish himself from his predecessor by positioning himself in lockstep with the president on all foreign-policy issues and vowing to restore the State Department’s “swagger.”

Current and former officials say Pompeo has made significant strides reversing some of Tillerson’s most controversial policies: lifting hiring freezes on diplomats’ family members at embassies; pushing to fill senior posts and ambassador positions that have sat empty for years; introducing new classes of foreign service officers; talking regularly with rank-and-file diplomats; and proving himself to be one of Trump’s closest confidants on foreign-policy matters.

In his speech, Pompeo said 59 more people have been confirmed since his first day and the administration promoted four senior career diplomats to career ambassadors—the State Department equivalent of four-star generals. Many top-ranking diplomats were forced out or quit under Tillerson.

Pompeo said in his speech he is fulfilling his promise of regularly talking with rank-and-file diplomats and “wouldn’t be somebody holed up on the seventh floor, who you never saw or heard from, [who] didn’t have any idea what the heck he was doing or what his team was doing.”

“No secretary has given as much facetime to employees as him,” said one State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “We have to give him credit for that.”

Perhaps most importantly, Trump listens to Pompeo. Unlike his predecessor and other top officials who have since left the administration, Pompeo has managed to stay on Trump’s good side, and the president has entrusted him to carry out major foreign-policy initiatives, including on Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.

For all the boasting however, Pompeo hasn’t been able to fully lift the State Department out of its funk: Dozens of senior State Department posts still remain unfilled—some ensnared in partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill awaiting Senate votes for confirmation, others simply never nominated by the president.

An unusually high proportion of Trump’s ambassadors are political appointees—including major donors to Trump’s inaugural committee with no diplomatic experience—instead of career diplomats. “Two years into the administration, they’ve just been so slow at filling slots that they have an unusually lopsided ratio [of political appointees],” said one former senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

An internal watchdog investigation into politically motivated reprisals by Trump appointees against career diplomats, an issue some lawmakers have eyed closely, still hangs over the department.

Year after year, Trump proposes steep budget cuts to the State Department, which Pompeo defends in congressional hearings and lawmakers pillory and reject.

Despite the secretary of state’s close relationship with Trump, diplomats still scramble to reverse shifts in U.S. foreign policy from the president’s off-the-cuff missives and tweets, including on issues in Libya, the Golan Heights, and the short-lived plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria.

Pompeo, however, insists that he is never caught off guard by Trump: “You all say, ‘Oh my goodness, the president made an announcement, it was spur of the moment, it was off the cuff.’ And I’m deeply aware of conversations going on, sometimes for a year,” he told the Washington Post. “Write what you will. You’re free to be inaccurate.”

As Pompeo reflected on his first year in Foggy Bottom and revealed the department’s new ethos, he said State would begin giving out a new “Ethos award” to one person in the department annually. He also said the State Department would be rolling out a new training package for every employee, which will be unveiled later this summer.

“We’re going to have a common set of training in addition to what is already given,” he said.

After his speech, he shook hands and took selfies with employees in the lobby while the ethos banner loomed above him before the crowd filed back to their offices.

Several State Department employees were overheard discussing the new ethos after the event. “So … what does this all mean?” one asked. His colleague shrugged and said: “I guess more training.”

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