Pompeo Emerges as Point Man in War of Words With China

His critics say he’s too busy attacking China to coordinate a global response to the pandemic. His supporters say he’s holding Beijing to account.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participate in the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington on April 8.
U.S. President Donald Trump (right) and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participate in the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington on April 8. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In recent weeks, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has emerged as the face of the administration’s hard-line China strategy, relying on the conservative media landscape to spread its message on Beijing’s blame for the coronavirus pandemic with a raft of hits on Fox News and conservative radio talk shows. 

“We’ve been very clear to the Chinese Communist Party they have a special responsibility,” Pompeo told Dan “Ox” Ochsner, one of four conservative radio talk show hosts he spoke to on Thursday alone. “This virus originated in Wuhan. They have a special responsibility to share with the world the data, the information, the need to be transparent.”

To outsiders and former diplomats, Pompeo’s media blitz in the conservative bubble appears designed to rally U.S. President Donald Trump’s base around what could be a key 2020 election issue as the pandemic lockdown draws the global economy to a standstill and fuels a surge in unemployment across the United States. Critics have knocked Pompeo for serving as the administration’s attack dog rather than coordinating a global response to the pandemic, a charge his supporters dismiss as partisan spin. 

China has shot back at Pompeo, with its state-run media machine targeting him in a barrage of unusually personal attacks in the past week as it tries to deflect U.S. criticisms that it mishandled the initial outbreak of the virus, contributing to its global spread. “Politicians like Pompeo have only prejudice, hatred, and private interests in their minds,” read one editorial in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party. “Pompeo has made people wonder if he believes he can ‘make America great again’ just by bullying and talking nonsense.”

In April alone, Pompeo had more than 90 interviews with U.S. news outlets and international press roundtables—a stark shift from the early months of the pandemic. He has also held semiregular press briefings at the State Department in the past month, where a group of reporters from a variety of national outlets can question him. Additionally, the department has organized almost daily phone briefings with other State Department officials on the department’s response to the pandemic and other issues. 

Still, some former diplomats have criticized Trump’s top diplomat for focusing too much on a select domestic audience with a political bent—many of his recent one-on-one interviews were with conservative outlets and talk shows. (The State Department publishes transcripts of Pompeo’s interviews on its website for public availability.) Several former diplomats told Foreign Policy that Pompeo sticking to Trump-friendly outlets allows him to skirt tough lines of questioning, and he’s doing so at the expense of more interviews with foreign media outlets where he can better convey America’s foreign policies to an international audience. 

“He’s spending a heck of a lot less time communicating to the world about why the Trump administration is doing what it’s doing. The other effect is he’s made the role of secretary of state much more partisan, and historically they were supposed to stay above the fray,” said Brett Bruen, a former career diplomat and director of global engagement at the White House under President Barack Obama. “While I may disagree with the policies, I would be the first to advocate that a secretary of state needs to be out in front in the international media explaining the rationale for what we’re doing.”

Others point out that Pompeo’s focus on domestic outlets was due to the State Department’s unprecedented task of repatriating tens of thousands of Americans trapped abroad, after the pandemic grounded international air travel and led to a wave of travel bans in foreign countries. U.S. embassies and consulates abroad have helped bring more than 70,000 Americans home since the end of January through organizing commercial or charter flights, according to State Department officials. 

Pompeo’s media blitz fits into the Trump administration’s broader strategy of pushing for independent probes into whether China mishandled its outbreak response and pressuring China to open its virology labs to international inspectors amid questions about the origins of the virus. The administration has also blamed the World Health Organization (WHO) for its role in the pandemic response, accusing the international health body of bowing to Chinese pressure. Critics say the administration is deflecting blame for its own slow domestic response to the pandemic, which has infected more than 1.1 million Americans and killed some 65,000. 

The Trump administration announced that it would temporarily cut funding to WHO in order to undergo a review of whether the international health body submitted too much to Chinese pressure.

Democratic lawmakers criticized such measures, saying that WHO, despite its flaws, needed continued U.S. support. “The inherent complexity of responding to and containing a pandemic demands greater U.S. leadership to coordinate an international response,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer; Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; and others wrote in a letter to Pompeo on April 20. “The solution to countering Chinese influence at the WHO is American leadership and engagement, not [American] absenteeism.”

“We’re the biggest contributor to the World Health Organization. It failed in its mission here, and so we’re conducting a review to figure out how best to use American taxpayer money to deliver real outcomes,” Pompeo said in a press conference on Wednesday. “We shouldn’t pretend that because some organization has ‘health’ in its title that it’s actually capable of delivering the outcomes that we need.”

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