Mike Pompeo is a disgrace to the office he holds and the department he leads.
On Friday, NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly reported that, during an interview, when asked about the Ukraine scandal, Pompeo began cursing, told her that Americans don’t care about Ukraine—nota bene: he was scheduled to visit Kyiv in six days—and brought out a map and challenged Kelly to find Ukraine on it.
And then he made things worse.
On Saturday, Pompeo released a statement about his outburst in which he—the American secretary of state—performed a McSally Maneuver. He attacked “the media.” He suggested that the interview was supposed to be off the record. (Further media inquiries to Pompeo’s subordinates contradicted this claim.) And then he suggested that Kelly actually hadn’t been able to find Ukraine on a map and instead had confused the Eastern European country with Bangladesh.
To get a sense of whose version of events is more credible, consider that Kelly was born in Germany, graduated from Harvard’s Kennedy School with honors, earned a graduate degree from Cambridge in European Studies, and has traveled to Ukraine multiple times as a war correspondent over the course of her decades of national security reporting.
How does a man like this happen? In a strange way, Pompeo is like the entire 2016 election poured into a single human skin-suit. He combines all of the calculation and misplaced ambition of Hillary Clinton with the vulgarity and dishonesty of Donald Trump. If you took DNA samples from Clinton and Trump and sent them to the lab on Isla Nublar, Pompeo is what you’d get.
Except that in one crucial aspect, Pompeo is worse.
Because unlike Clinton and Trump, who were approaching their apexes in 2016, Pompeo is at the dawn of his public career. Ten years ago, he was running for the House for the first time, and nobody had heard of him. Five years after he arrived in Washington, he was still an unknown backbencher. The next thing you knew, he was getting the nod to be the director of the CIA. And barely a year after that, he ascended to secretary of State. And at every step of the way, he’s been too small for his office.
And that’s not all: It being the dawn of his career, Pompeo suffers from none of the weariness which often looks like rot, but sometimes manifest as wisdom. When George Shultz, James Baker, Madeleine Albright, and John Kerry became secretaries of State, they were near the ends of their public careers. They had neither the energy nor the inclination to be plotting their next steps up the ladder. And so they focused on doing the job of representing our nation’s interests abroad
Pompeo, on the other hand, clearly has his eye on a larger prize, and his official duties are sublimated to his career pursuits. Think about it: Why would the secretary of State insult an ally (“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”) shortly before a visit? The answer, of course, is that Pompeo was doing a performance piece for a targeted audience—President Trump and MAGA primary voters —and didn’t care how his tantrum hurt America’s interests.
Just so long as it impressed the boss and the base.
Pompeo is less like those other secretaries of State I mentioned and more like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Secretary Clinton used her office to position herself for her 2016 presidential campaign. As such, she accomplished next to nothing as secretary, save for raising her profile in a manner only adjacent to Barack Obama’s administration.
Like Clinton, Pompeo has had very few accomplishments as a secretary. He has failed to capitalize on Iran’s weak footing both at home and in the region. Whatever trade agreement is being negotiated with China is coming out of Robert Lighthizer’s office, and not Pompeo’s. He has failed to convince European allies to limit the influences of Russia and China in their countries beyond what their original plans were, and the anti-Iran coalition he has established only includes states which already didn’t like Iran, to begin with. His Korea policy has led to no limitation on North Korea’s nuclear program, but it has succeeded in bringing South Korea closer to China and North Korea. As the relationship between Japan and South Korea has deteriorated, Pompeo has done nothing to even contain the problem, let alone solve it.
Why? Either because he’s inept or ambivalent. Or, just as likely, both.
Is it true that Americans don’t care about Ukraine? Perhaps, though it is clear that at the present moment, Americans probably care more about Ukraine than they have ever before.
But even if you grant that Americans do not, in fact, care all that much about Ukraine, part of Pompeo’s job is to explain to them why they should.
Yet, the truth is, Mike Pompeo doesn’t care about Ukraine, either. What he cares about is the hold Donald Trump has over the Republican party. He knows that Trump and his base care—deeply—about owning the libs and bashing the media. So, Pompeo will own the libs and bash the media, even if doing so disgraces the office that he holds.
Because when he runs for his next office, having Trump’s hearty endorsement and the public persona of Trump-style fighter against the left will matter much more than whether or not he was an effective or competent or honorable secretary of State.
For Pompeo, last week’s episode was not embarrassing or out of character. It was a golden opportunity to position himself as the legitimate heir to the grievant-in-chief and a rising start in the modern GOP’s outrage politics.
Lost in the middle are the United States’ interests abroad, many unfilled ambassadorial positions, many more filled to return political favors in unprecedented numbers and critical countries, respect for America, and the credibility of the United States.
For Pompeo, it’s a bargain at twice the price.