Why Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State Should Scare You More Than Rex Tillerson

A bumbler who disagrees with Trump from time to time is better than a yes man as America’s chief diplomat.


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Prediction one: In two months or so, we’re going to be seeing lots of flattering news stories about how new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has his department functioning well again.

Prediction two: While this sounds like good news, it will in fact be very bad.

Why? Let me put it to you this way. Which would you rather have: a bumbler who disagrees with Donald Trump from time to time, or a seemingly efficient bureaucrat who agrees with him almost all of the time? Because we had the former in Rex Tillerson, and soon, in Pompeo, we will have the latter, and that’s a lot more dangerous.

Tillerson was always in over his head and always not-quite-sure what he was doing in the job. His hesitance with the press and that “I’d rather be golfing” expression on his face marked his tenure from the start. He will not exactly live in history alongside George Marshall.

But whatever else we may say about him, the fired secretary of State was the Hippocrates of Foggy Bottom: He did no harm—at least in broader world, that is; he did plenty of harm inside the building, where morale was in the sewer. But he did little to make the geopolitical situation worse. Considering the man he’s working for, in time we may come to appreciate that as a world-historical accomplishment.

He kept Trump from blowing up the Iran deal. He hewed to the traditional line on North Korea, which was no talks without some meaningful preconditions. When he got the axe, he was on his way home from a trip to Africa, where he was trying to make amends after Trump’s “shithole” countries remark, and more specifically from Chad, where he was trying to explain to a perplexed capital why the Trump administration added Chad to the travel ban last year and offer hope that the country might be removed.

We won’t know the whole story until the memoirs come out—if he bothers—but it would hardly be shocking to learn that Tillerson saved our country from a few international mini-crises.

Pompeo? By all accounts he admires Trump; and is for the most part on the same page. He’s been briefing the president daily. They have, as Trump said himself Tuesday morning, “chemistry.” When I think about what kind of man it takes to develop “chemistry” with Donald Trump, and realize that that man is about to be the United States’ top diplomat, it somehow leaves me less than reassured.

Pompeo will be, in all likelihood, a better manager of the department than Tillerson. He’s been a congressman and he’s been running the CIA. Of course, Tillerson hailed from one of the biggest private companies in the world, but Pompeo also knows his way around Washington better than Tillerson did. He’ll fill posts. I’d bet we’ll have an ambassador in Seoul now—one of the more glaring empty diplomatic seats—fairly soon. This is where the positive stories will come in two months from now.

But he’ll be filling those posts with hard-liners and Trump loyalists. So now we are likely to see, in a way we did not see for these first 14 months, the president being able to execute his foreign-policy, well, vision.

So look for the administration to cancel the Iran deal. Pompeo has been a big critic of it. Look for a harder line, if such is possible, on Israel and the Palestinians. On Russia, Pompeo has taken a far more anti-Putin line than Trump; after all, he heads an agency that is part of the consensus view that Russia meddled in the election to help Trump. Just this past weekend, Pompeo challenged Putin’s dismissal of meddling claims as “false.” Will Pompeo try to persuade the president of this view, or spend the next few months trying to make his boss forget he ever held it? Count me among those skeptical that the potentially new secretary of State won’t learn the lessons from the just axed secretary of State—that fealty to Trump is the key currency.  

So we have no idea what we’re in for. What will Pompeo’s posture be on these allegedly upcoming North Korea talks? (“Allegedly” because I’d bet there’s a chance they don’t actually happen.) If they’re really taking place in a mere two months, that’s an awfully short time for a new secretary of State and a new diplomatic team to get on the same page and try to convince the president to read a memo.

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But Trump doesn’t think about such things. Nothing about this was planned. Trump was waiting for an excuse, it seems, for a while, and Tillerson appears to have given him the excuse he needed with the Russia comments. But he doesn’t think about consequences in firing his secretary of State any more than he thinks about them when accepting a no-conditions sit-down with Kim Jong Un on the spur of the moment.

We were spared one bullet here. Trump didn’t name Tom Cotton to replace Pompeo at CIA, as expected. My guess: The Republicans didn’t want to risk losing a Senate seat. If a Democrat could win in Alabama, as Doug Jones did, maybe one could win in Arkansas, too. We have the Republican primary voters of Alabama to thank for that, for nominating a pervert.

But we have problems enough. Usually, you want a president and secretary of state to be on roughly the same page. It tends to serve the country well. But there’s an exception to every rule.