Mike Pompeo, who has been a soldier, businessman, congressman, CIA director and secretary of state, says he thinks that ever since he was a 17-year-old assistant manager of a Baskin-Robbins store in Orange County, Calif., he has improved the cultures almost everywhere he worked. Almost.
Not, however, at the State Department. Concerning it, his opinion is similar to that of the wit who said the State Department is like tundra — anything you could do to it would improve it. But, then, no Republican ever annoyed the party’s base by disparaging State.
From a California childhood, Pompeo went to West Point, where he finished first in his class. He left the Army a captain, having been a tank commander along the East German border. At Harvard Law School, he served on the Law Review with a student one year behind him, Ted Cruz. After a stint with a premier Washington law firm, Williams & Connolly, in 1996 he moved to Kansas to start a business, Thayer Aerospace. He became a Republican national committeeman, then won the first of four congressional terms in 2010, before being sent by President Donald Trump first to Langley, then Foggy Bottom.
Pompeo is exploring a presidential candidacy in the orthodox way, campaigning for Republican candidates hither and yon, falling in love with Iowa’s vistas and Iowans’ wisdom, etc. Recently, Pompeo was in Pennsylvania campaigning for his West Point contemporary, David McCormick, a hedge-fund titan seeking the Republicans’ Senate nomination. Pompeo’s argument for himself is that he has had presidentially germane government experience within institutions critical to coping with a world growing more dangerous.
Pompeo’s selection as CIA director was somewhat accidental, the result of Trump’s slapdash approach to everything. During the 2016 Republican nomination competition, at the Kansas caucuses in Wichita, Pompeo spoke for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, with Trump listening backstage. Trump reached a rolling boil when Pompeo cited Trump’s claim that if, as president, he ordered a soldier to commit a war crime, the soldier would do it. Pompeo said Trump would be an “authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution.”
Eight months later, eight days after the election, at Trump Tower in New York, Pompeo met Trump for the first time and accepted the CIA job, which Trump offered to someone he barely knew because Vice President-elect Mike Pence urged him to. Tim Alberta, an impeccable reporter, writes in his book “American Carnage” that when Trump was told he had just bestowed a plum position on the congressman who had committed the Wichita sacrilege, Trump exploded: “No! That was him? We’ve got to take it back. This is what I get for letting Pence pick everyone!”
Ah, well. The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. Trump’s plentiful anger found new targets, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Thou shalt not call the president, at whose pleasure you serve, a “[expletive] moron.”) So, Pompeo can now try to become the first former secretary of state since James Buchanan 165 years ago to become president.
Pompeo might be a president with some surprising depths: He named Peter Berkowitz, a distinguished political philosopher with a Yale PhD, director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, whose first two directors were extraordinary architects of the post-1945 world: George Kennan (1947-1949) and Paul Nitze (1950-1953). It took an interesting secretary to pick Berkowitz, the author of, among other books, “Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist.”
When preparing to run a marathon, you get in trim. Pompeo has shed 90 pounds — nearly a third of his weight. He is almost svelte and altogether convinced that many Republican presidential aspirants will enter the nomination scramble before Trump answers this question: Dare I risk running another campaign that might end with mere arithmetic — vote sums — being construed as evidence that I lost?
As Pompeo leaves a breakfast where his hearty appetite for scrambled eggs and chicken sausage indicated that he is happy with his current configuration, he is enveloped by his security detail. This is not an entitlement for a former director of the CIA; it is a necessity. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has agents in the United States, says he wants to kill Pompeo, whom the ayatollah blames for the Jan. 3, 2020, U.S. drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the terrorist who was an Iranian national hero. In Republican primaries, campaigning with a target placed on your back by Iran is an unfair advantage.