Pompeo Was Riding High—Until the Ukraine Mess Exploded

Indeed, between the PDB briefings, weekly lunches, and extended overseas summits, no member of the cabinet appears to spend as much time with Trump as Pompeo.

The president clearly appreciates Pompeo’s lack of drama and consistent public defense of the administration. “I argue with everyone,” Trump told New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi during a rollicking Oval Office interview a year ago, “except Pompeo.” As Trump told her, “I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo!”

Asked how he’s stayed in such good graces with the White House in an administration that burns through officials at Daytona 500-like speeds, Pompeo told me that he just understands his specific role. “I’ve been a leader and a follower all my life,” he says. “When you have a tank platoon, you have a company commander. When you run a business in Wichita, Kansas, you have a board of directors. When you work at a church, you work for the senior people of the church and the Lord.”

“It’s not lost on anybody who meets with him—he has a bold and courageous spirit and he’s a Christian conservative, in that order, and yet he’s got a smile on his face.”

Usually, Pompeo’s department seems to go out of its way to walk on eggshells around Trump; it yanked a press freedom award from a Finnish journalist who criticized the president on Twitter. Pompeo himself carefully cultivates his own press image and has been reluctant to engage with reporters; the State Department has drastically curtailed what had been daily press briefings in prior administrations. Whereas Clinton made social media and what she called 21st-century diplomacy a key part of her vision at State, Pompeo doesn’t tweet personally and his @SecPompeo handle is filled only with formal anodyne tweets sure never to attract presidential attention, much less ire.

Like his appearance in Nashville earlier this month, Pompeo himself often is visibly uncomfortable—and sometimes downright surly—in interviews, approaching them more as verbal judo matches than opportunities to win friends and influence people. A December appearance on the couch at Fox & Friends, normally considered safe ground for Trump aides, grew tense after the hosts gently pressed him on Saudi Arabia’s alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi. In perhaps the most infamous incident with the press, Bloomberg reporter Nick Wadhams was reportedly banned from the secretary’s plane after writing that during his shuttle diplomacy with North Korea, Pompeo had foregone the elaborate breakfast prepared by his hosts to eat toast and processed cheese.

Pompeo seems to particularly bristle under tough questioning from female reporters. Just a few days before sitting with Nashville’s Nancy Amons, he similarly accused Judy Woodruff from PBS of, again, working for the Democratic National Committee. During an interview in March on foreign policy and trade, he cut short a question from USA Today reporter Deirdre Shesgreen when he felt she had mischaracterized the administration’s policy: “No, not OK, but—Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Not OK, but. Not OK, but. These are the facts,” he said curtly, proceeding to mansplain agriculture policy. And it was a September 22 conversation with ABC’s Martha Raddatz where, through a careful evasion, he sought to leave the impression that he had no knowledge of the Ukraine whistle-blower call, only to admit days later that he’d been on the call himself.

His wariness with the press includes refusing to release routine information. In an administration that has seen multiple cabinet members accused of living large on the taxpayer dime—including Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, and Interior secretary Ryan Zinke—Pompeo raised eyebrows early in his tenure after moving into what’s known as Potomac Hill, a small military complex across the street from the State Department that includes three Georgian Revival homes typically used to house four-star Navy admirals. In the last decade, one of the homes has been regularly used by sitting defense secretaries, including Robert Gates and James Mattis, in part for security reasons.

When the unusual housing arrangement was confirmed last September, his spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, told reporters that the move would save about $400,000 a year in security costs for the Pompeos, who had previously lived in a modest rental home in Virginia. Ever since, though, the State Department has refused to release the rent Pompeo is supposed to be paying, even though the Pentagon released what Mattis had paid in the same complex.

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