Fear and Loathing at Pompeo’s State Department

Career diplomats feel betrayed as the secretary of state stays silent on the Ukraine inquiry. But Pompeo remains a star in Republican circles as he eyes a possible Senate run.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the State Department.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to reporters at the State Department in Washington on March 15. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

In 2018, Mike Pompeo was welcomed to the U.S. State Department with open arms by diplomats eager for a secretary who wanted to engage with them and boasted a close personal relationship with the president. Now that very relationship with the White House—and the Ukraine-related impeachment inquiry that is tangled up in it—is driving a wedge between career foreign service officials and a secretary of state who appears to be halfway out the door and possibly eyeing his own future political career.

One by one, senior U.S. diplomats have seen their careers damaged or potentially destroyed as they’ve been compelled to give testimony before Congress over President Donald Trump’s alleged attempt to leverage U.S. foreign policy for political gain—while Pompeo has remained largely silent. The latest was Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who was grilled on Capitol Hill this week over his role in removing former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. 

In his confirmation hearing to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, Sullivan confirmed that Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his associates engaged in a concerted campaign to oust Yovanovitch over her resistance to Giuliani’s “shadow” foreign policy, and that he was the one who informed her she was being removed despite serving “admirably and capably.”

“I like John personally, but I think he willingly closed his eyes to the corruption that was happening at the State Department,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy told several reporters after the hearing on Wednesday. “I think that’s really unfortunate. He’s a good person, and he should’ve been speaking out.”

Pompeo has declined to defend Yovanovitch in numerous press interviews in the weeks since the impeachment probe started, saying he would not publicly discuss internal personnel matters.

Michael McKinley, a career diplomat and former advisor to Pompeo who recently resigned, reportedly testified that he pushed the secretary to show support for Yovanovitch, but Pompeo declined to do so. McKinley also reportedly testified that Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine, coupled with other unaddressed mismanagement issues at the department, drove him to resign. 

Scrutiny over Pompeo’s handling of the State Department comes as it deals with the fallout from several scandals involving political appointees mistreating or abusing staff. Together with the impeachment probe, these issues have exacerbated the atmosphere of unease and mistrust within the department, according to more than a dozen current and former State Department officials, some of whom spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity.

William Burns, a former career diplomat who served in senior roles in Republican and Democratic administrations, likened the current atmosphere in Foggy Bottom to the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s, considered a historic low point for the State Department in the Cold War. 

Daniel Fried, who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs in the George W. Bush administration, agreed that the divisions between the White House and State Department were undermining U.S. foreign policy. “In his treatment of Masha Yovanovitch, not only is [Pompeo] failing to protect his people, he’s not protecting the president, as he’s allowing him to make decisions based on misinformation or disinformation,” said Fried. “If the president makes decisions based on what he hears on parts of Fox News, you’ve just made the Kremlin’s job easier.”

Pompeo has pushed back on reports of morale issues. “I see these stories about morale being low. I see things precisely the opposite. I see motivated officers. I’ve watched them perform in Syria this week. I’ve watched them perform in difficult situations during my year and a half as secretary of state,” Pompeo told ABC News in a televised interview on Oct. 20. “I’m incredibly proud of the work they’ve done, and I will always defend them when it’s appropriate.”

On Burns’s assessment, Pompeo responded: “I think Bill Burns must be auditioning to be Elizabeth Warren’s secretary of state.”

But if diplomats are becoming increasingly disaffected, the person who matters most to Pompeo’s stature in the administration—Trump—is not. 

Unlike other former Trump officials, Pompeo has thus far weathered the chaotic world and revolving door of Trump’s Washington, where scandals and abrupt sackings have taken out a slew of cabinet officials before him. 

In stark contrast to his predecessor, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Pompeo has always remained in lockstep with the president and, perhaps just as importantly, never found himself on the wrong side of a Trump tweet. “I argue with everyone,” Trump said in an interview with New York Magazine last year. “Except Pompeo … I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo!”

His close relationship with the president signals a bright political future—including nagging rumors he will run for Senate in Kansas in 2020—even if his popularity inside the Beltway has taken a hit. 

Though the impeachment scandal has dragged the State Department into the fiercest hyperpartisan battle yet in Trump’s presidency, Pompeo has steadfastly defended the president and denied Trump did anything wrong in pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate potential Democratic rivals. 

Despite multiple State Department employees testifying about Trump’s pressure campaign toward Ukraine, there is no evidence that it has damaged Pompeo’s personal relationship with the president, according to a source close to the White House who spoke on condition of anonymity to assess the two men’s relationship. Indeed, the continued strength of that relationship has important political implications for Pompeo. 

“He’s inner circle with the president and clearly that bolsters his credentials with the base,” the source said. 

And if Trump has stoked tensions and rifts within some factions of the Republican Party, Pompeo has not. “Conservatives have a great deal of trust in Secretary Pompeo. He is very well respected and well liked in all elements of the Republican Party,” said Mike Howell of the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank. “He’s proven to be one of the president’s most trusted and closest advisors at the cabinet level.”

For months, top Republican figures have pushed Pompeo to run for Senate in his adopted home state of Kansas in 2020, a potential stepping stone to a future presidential race. Pompeo has repeatedly denied he would run and said he is focusing on his current job. But he has made four trips to Kansas this year, some ostensibly on official secretary of state duties and apparently on the State Department’s tab. Pompeo was in Kansas last weekend during the raid on Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi for a wedding of a close family friend.

The trips to Kansas have fueled rumors that he is still considering a Senate run, and by doing interviews with local TV and radio stations, it’s obvious Pompeo is trying to stay a familiar face to Kansas voters. 

Republican strategists expect that if Pompeo runs, he will clear the Republican field in the state, perhaps with the exception of Kris Kobach, Kansas’s lightning-rod former secretary of state who Democrats believe could hand them a victory in the traditionally Republican state. Pompeo, on the other hand, would likely win the state easily. 

And there are good political incentives for Pompeo to leave the Trump administration, as it would put his political destiny in his own hands, regardless of whether Trump wins reelection in 2020. “He’s an incredibly ambitious person who clearly has plans for himself beyond even the secretary of state’s office,” said one Senate Republican strategist who spoke on condition of anonymity. 

“If Trump wins, [Pompeo] can be one of the administration’s biggest allies and supporters in the Senate,” the strategist said. “If Trump does not win reelection, then he has a hub, a safe landing spot, and a position of relevance where he could plan a run for higher office.” 

While a slew of career officials have been subpoenaed to testify before lawmakers in the ongoing impeachment probe, Pompeo has thus far been able to keep himself at arm’s length from the rapidly escalating investigation, even as questions loom as to what he knew and whether he made any efforts to curb the back channel to Ukraine that was carved out by the president and his allies. 

Pompeo was made aware of Giuliani’s efforts to push unproven allegations about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s role in corrupt practices in Ukraine as early as March of this year, when Giuliani sent the secretary of state a packet of documents outlining his allegations. Giuliani told Foreign Policy that, in a follow-up phone call with Pompeo, the secretary said he would pass them on to the appropriate people to investigate. 

William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine after Yovanovitch was removed, testified that he and other officials were alarmed by the push to withhold aid from Ukraine unless President Volodymyr Zelensky agreed to investigate the Bidens. The White House press secretary lashed out at Taylor in response, saying “far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats” were driving the impeachment process.

Pompeo has yet to affirm or reject the White House’s characterization of Taylor as a radical unelected bureaucrat. 

The State Department did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. 

Rep. Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says the Trump administration is mistreating career diplomats and lays the blame for the current climate in the State Department squarely at the feet of Pompeo, who once pledged to restore the department’s “swagger.” 

“For all of Secretary Pompeo’s blustery talk of swagger, I’ve never seen an administration treat our diplomats and civil servants so poorly. Since day one of the Trump presidency, the White House has tried to gut the budget for diplomacy, and State Department personnel have been targets for abuse, harassment, and retaliation,” Engel told Foreign Policy. “Rather than putting a stop to it, Secretary Pompeo has permitted a culture of impunity to fester and even tried to intimidate witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.”

Pompeo’s future political ambitions have also drawn fire from lawmakers overseeing the State Department and even some officials within the department. They charge that the secretary is more focused on the next job than his current one at a time when the department is in the crosshairs of a political firefight.

Pompeo has repeatedly denied the rumors and said he is focused on his job as secretary of state. He has also said he is unfazed by the impeachment inquiry, which he has criticized as being unjust and unfair to the president. “Whatever the noise is in Washington or whatever some journalist wants to ask about some storyline that’s going on, the American people should know that the State Department will continue to do its mission,” he told the Wichita Eagle during his latest visit to Kansas on Oct. 24. 

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, believes Pompeo is improperly mixing business with politics. On Oct. 29, Menendez sent a letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal watchdog agency, requesting that it investigate whether Pompeo violated regulations that prohibit federal employees from using their post in government for partisan political activities. 

Pompeo fired back at the accusations in an interview with the Mid-America Network news outlet on Friday, calling Menendez’s letter “just all silliness.”

“I think in Senator Menendez’s mind it’s probably hard for him to imagine why anybody would want to go to Kansas. It’s the kind of left-coast, elitist liberalism that can’t understand how someone would want to go to the amazing place like Kansas,” Pompeo said.

Staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed to this report. 

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

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

 Twitter: @EliasGroll