Trump's shadow secretary of defense
Mike Pompeo has assumed an outsized role from his perch in Foggy Bottom.
In recent days, one aide to President Donald Trump has blitzed the media to talk about troop deployments, deterrence and the likelihood of American bombs raining down on Iranian soil.
It’s not the man who leads the Pentagon.
Instead, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has seized the spotlight amid the escalating U.S. confrontation with Iran. As he’s done so, he’s come across to some observers as an unofficial secretary of defense, overshadowing the actual defense secretary.
Pompeo’s omnipresence illustrates the extraordinary influence he wields in Trump’s inner circle three years into the Republican president’s tenure.
His prestige within the administration has been enhanced by multiple leadership changes at the Pentagon and National Security Council. It has continued despite questions about his role in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment, and amid questions about his political aspirations. And it has raised eyebrows at the Defense Department, which is led by Mark Esper, a former West Point classmate of Pompeo’s who has kept a relatively low profile in his six months on the job.
Pompeo is “first among equals in the national security team, and others defer to him,” said Tom Wright, a Brookings Institution scholar who has been tracking the Trump team’s dynamics. “He doesn’t have a competing center of power.”
Pompeo appeared on all the major talk shows on Sunday to field a slew of tough questions about the Trump administration’s decision to kill Qassem Soleimani, a powerful Iranian general that U.S. officials blame for attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq and terrorist operations elsewhere around the world.
A long-time Iran hawk, Pompeo fiercely defended the strike, which took out Soleimani as he was visiting Baghdad, even as it has led to vows of Iranian revenge and calls from Iraqi politicians for U.S. forces to withdraw. Pompeo, who graduated first in the class of 1986 at West Point, sounded more like a swaggering military leader than America’s top diplomat.
“We took a bad guy off the battlefield. We made the right decision. There is less risk today to American forces in the region as a result of that attack,” Pompeo said while on CNN’s State of the Union.
“Previous administrations had allowed Shiite militias to take shots at us, and at best, we responded in theater, trying to challenge and attack everybody who was running around with an AK-47 or a piece of indirect artillery,” he said on ABC’s This Week. “We’ve made a very different approach.”
Aides to Pompeo did not respond to a request for comment. But a Trump administration official defended Esper in comments offered after this story was first published. The official noted that under his leadership, the Pentagon “flawlessly” carried out the strike against the Iranian general, and that the secretary’s low profile over the past several days has been intentional.
“The administration chose to put Secretary Pompeo, the chief diplomat, out to de-escalate tensions and make room for negotiations,“ the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Secretary Esper has worked diligently to keep [the Department of Defense] out of politics. Your metric — Sunday show appearances — uses the most political media metric available to judge influence. It is the exact opposite of what DOD does.“
The secretary of defense did appear in the media in the hours ahead of last week‘s strike on Soleimani. He told reporters on Thursday that the United States, “will take preemptive action as well to protect American forces,” warning Iran that “the game has changed.”
And he popped up on Monday to clarify that U.S. troops were not planning to leave Iraq, despite a letter suggesting otherwise from an American brigadier general.
But Esper, who served in the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War, has largely vanished from sight otherwise.
Given the dangerous situation in the Middle East now, his absence has led to griping among some military reporters, who’ve also long complained about the dearth of press briefings at the Pentagon.
Former military officials and others who track the Defense Department say that Esper appears to have made the calculation that it’s best to stay behind the scenes in an administration where few people have Trump’s ear, and where anything you say could be easily undermined by a presidential tweet moments later.
Plus, Esper, a former Capitol Hill staffer and lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon, took over as defense secretary with a thinner executive branch resume than many who’ve held the position in the past. And while he can point to his time as an infantry officer and at West Point, some Pentagon watchers wonder if even that is helping Pompeo overshadow him.
Several people from the 1986 West Point class hold key administration positions. Because he was first in that class, Pentagon observers say it’s possible that others from the 1986 crew at West Point take a back seat to Pompeo.
“The worry at the Pentagon is that [Esper] defers to Pompeo,” said Mark Perry, author of “The Pentagon's Wars: The Military's Undeclared War Against America's Presidents.” He said there were other reasons for that beyond the West Point dynamics, including that “Pompeo has the president’s ear and Esper doesn’t.”
Pompeo is one of the few Trump aides able to deal with tough media questions without showing any personal differences with the president — even if that means his answers are sometimes misleading. And Trump clearly trusts him.
“I argue with everyone,” Trump said in a 2018 account in New York magazine. “Except Pompeo... I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo!”
A senior Trump administration official confirmed that it was the White House that requested Pompeo appear on the Sunday shows. Given that Pompeo is passionate about the issue of Iran — U.S. diplomats say he gets deep into the weeds on the topic — he requires little prep work.
But the latest Iran crisis isn’t the first time Pompeo’s actions have startled Pentagon officials.
On June 18, in an odd move for a secretary of State, Pompeo traveled to Florida to meet with leaders of U.S. Central Command and Special Operations command. The meetings focused in part on Iran, which the U.S. was accusing of attacking international oil tankers.
But the visit also came the same day the president withdrew the nomination of then-Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to serve in the role on a permanent basis.
Shanahan’s nomination was shelved after some family troubles came to light. His withdrawal was another low point for the Pentagon, which had already seen James Mattis quit as defense secretary after the president in late 2018 ordered the withdrawal of troops from Syria.
Pompeo said the purpose of his Florida visit was to “make sure that the State Department and the Department of Defense were deeply coordinated across a whole broad range of issues.” But, according to Perry, the visit “still roils” some military officials.
A former senior Pentagon official described it to POLITICO as “a very unusual way for a secretary of State to spend an entire day,” not least because he could have gotten similar briefings at the Pentagon itself.
While he was in Florida, some in the Washington foreign policy establishment wondered if he was auditioning to be the next secretary of defense. (Pompeo’s first job with Trump was as CIA director.)
Even at the State Department, Pompeo, who served as an Army cavalry officer after West Point, often takes a military-style approach. He refers to his diplomats’ having a “mission set” and tells his “team” to “keep crushing it.”
People who know him say his military training appears to influence his willingness to defend Trump in public and implement whatever the president – the commander-in-chief – wants.
In his first major address to his workforce after he became secretary of State in 2018, Pompeo raised the military concept of “commander’s intent” in pledging to craft a vision for what he wanted to achieve. The concept describes the end-state a commander seeks so that his troops can do what they need to get there.
Some in the military world downplayed questions about whether, in staying below the radar, Esper and the Pentagon were ceding anything to Pompeo.
Pentagon officials are busy dealing with the technicalities of ramping up the U.S. troop presence in the Middle East amid threats of reprisals from Iran. Esper needs to focus more on that than public relations, they argued.
“It goes more to the relationship between Pompeo and Trump than any sort of emasculation of the Pentagon,” said Peter Mansoor, a retired U.S. Army colonel. “The Pentagon leaders realize they need to stay under the radar and get on with their business.”
Another former Pentagon official pointed to critiques that over the past two decades – especially after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – the Department of Defense has taken an outsized role in setting the U.S. foreign policy agenda.
He acknowledged that the State Department remains a weak institution under Trump, who views it with suspicion as stronghold for Democrats. But the former official said it was refreshing to see the top U.S. diplomat out front on an issue of international relations.
“Isn’t this more of a restoration of the way the system is supposed to work?” he asked.
Pompeo’s willingness to be so public also might have to do with politics as much as policy.
The former Kansas congressman is believed to have ambitions to run for office again someday, though the latest indications are that he won’t make a run for the Senate this year. Republicans view him as a potential White House contender in 2024. Getting face-time on national television helps, especially when he can sound tough on a country loathed by many in the GOP base.
Also unusually for a secretary of State, Pompeo often takes indirect partisan shots.
For instance, he has used his recent platform to blame the Democratic administration of Barack Obama for the challenges in dealing with Iran today. On Sunday, he described it as the “Obama-Biden" administration, referring to former vice president Joe Biden, a leading contender against Trump in this year’s presidential race.
Pompeo also stressed the scope of his relationship with the president.
“I’ve been with President Trump through the entire strategic planning process related to our entire campaign – diplomatic, economic, and military,” he said on CNN, adding later: “The American people should know that we will not waiver.”
Wesley Morgan contributed to this report.