And as the United States continues to grapple with the fallout of an assault on its very institutions of democracy — one incited by the President and his allies — Pompeo leaves with an apparent eye toward his own political future on a tide of Twitter self-congratulations.
Many were pugnacious, with the Harvard-educated lawyer taking aim at the foreign policy “elite” and the Obama administration. Several called for the account’s three million followers to follow him on his personal Twitter page. One
, posted Wednesday, suggested President Donald Trump should be nominated for a Nobel Prize for his work on normalization deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Hours later, Trump was impeached for an unprecedented second time
, this time for “incitement of insurrection.”
‘It’s only the Trump legacy’
In an interview just a day prior, Pompeo suggested that he did not believe the deadly attack on the US Capitol would tarnish the administration’s legacy.
“Look, what happened that day was terrible, and I have said repeatedly that those folks who engaged in this activity need to be identified, prosecuted, and they are criminals and ought to be treated as such,” he told Hugh Hewitt.
“But history will reflect on the good work that this President and our administration has done. Those books will be written about the changes that we have made in the world, the recognition that we have taken about reality, sovereignty, respect for basic dignity and human rights, a return to the founding principles in a way that previous administrations had not done,” he said.
One former senior State Department official told CNN that “in many ways, Mike Pompeo’s singular accomplishment is that he didn’t get fired and that he somehow survived four years with this President, and not many can claim that.”
Pompeo was Trump’s CIA Director prior to moving to the State Department.
“As in all things related to this administration, there is no such thing as a Pompeo legacy or Tillerson legacy or a Mattis legacy or an Esper legacy. It’s only the Trump legacy, because of how the President understands himself and understands everyone around him,” the official said.
Four years of the Trump administration have left the United States isolated on the world stage, its credibility shaken as Trump upended traditional foreign policy, pulled out of multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization
and withdrew from treaties like the Paris Climate Accord
and the Iran nuclear deal.
The US President disparaged allies and sought personal diplomacy with some of the world’s most dangerous leaders. He held two summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and exchanged “beautiful” letters
He pursued an unusually close relationship with Vladimir Putin, siding with the Russian leader
over his own intelligence community regarding 2016 election interference.
These relations resulted in neither a denuclearized North Korea nor a subdued Putin. Just this week, Kim unveiled a new submarine-launched ballistic missile
. Russia has continued to illegally occupy Crimea, was linked to a massive cyberattack on the US government,
attempted to meddle in the US election
, put bounties on US soldiers
and its secret police force tried to murder a leading Kremlin critic.
“We’re in a worse place today than we were before he came in, and I didn’t think that was possible,” said former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
, who was fired in March 2018.
In an interview with Bloomberg
at the beginning of January, Pompeo declined to offer details on his future plans, but said he was proud of the work the administration had done.
“I’ve made some real friends and I’ve had a chance to see people at every level in the United States Government working and striving to keep the American people safe,” he said.
Pompeo said that “after four years, I think we’re leaving the world safer than when we came in” — a claim belied by the ongoing global pandemic and aggression of adversaries worldwide, some of whom were emboldened by the very policies this administration put in place.
“I hope that the policies that we put in place will have the capacity to continue,” he said.
Foreign policy moves
Pompeo and members of his State Department team were the faces of some of the administration’s biggest efforts — its hawkish China strategy, its unprecedented dealings with the Taliban, its “maximum pressure” campaign on Iran, and its reversal of long-standing policies on Israel.
Another former senior State Department official also said that “whether it was Iran, actions with China, his own interpretation of human rights, or the meshing of domestic political agenda with what State did, all that seemed driven by strong personal interests as well.”
The top US diplomat played a steady drumbeat of anti-Beijing rhetoric throughout his tenure, calling the Chinese Communist Party the “central threat of our times” as tensions between the two nations spiked. He enacted aggressive policies aimed at countering the Chinese government; Beijing frequently responded with tit-for-tat retaliation.
He imposed visa restrictions on Chinese government officials
, designated Chinese media companies based in the United States as foreign missions
, and shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston
, accusing it of being a central node of Chinese espionage.
The administration unveiled a number of punitive measures
for crackdowns on protesters and Beijing’s encroachment into the once semi-autonomous region. Pompeo also spoke out about the Chinese government’s brutal campaign of repression against the Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang.
Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment Keith Krach described Pompeo as “very strategic” and “tough,” which he saw as attributes in dealing with China.
“If I look at China, in order to have areas of cooperation with them, we actually have to compete with them first. They look at it as a zero-sum game. And the only way to deal with it is from a position of strength,” he told CNN.
Krach said that he believed the Clean Network
initiative, under which dozens of governments and companies pledged to use “trusted” telecommunications partners as opposed to companies like Huawei, would be one of the lasting legacies of the State Department under Pompeo. The administration threatened to limit intelligence sharing with nations who used the Chinese telecom giant.
As Pompeo hardened America’s policies towards China, in his final days he announced a major policy shift to clear the way for US diplomats and other government officials to deal directly with Taiwan government officials
in a move that seemed aimed at boxing in the Biden administration.
It was one of the many significant announcements he unveiled at the 11th hour, along with re-designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism
and designating Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization.
Experts fear the latter could lead to famine in the war-torn nation.
As part of the administration’s efforts to end America’s longest-running war — a Trump campaign pledge — Pompeo and his team did something no American leader had been willing to do before: meet and sign an agreement with the Taliban. That agreement, signed in February 2020,
eventually led to the start of intra-Afghan negotiations, but those talks have yet to yield results.
In the meantime, deadly violence in Afghanistan has continued and reports found that the Taliban has not distanced itself from al Qaeda
after pledging to do so. Despite Trump administration officials’ claims that a US withdrawal from the country would be conditions-based, Trump continued to decrease troop levels — which some argue has given the Taliban the upper hand in negotiations. With the Trump administration coming to an end, the nearly two-decade presence on the ground continues, with 2,500 troops as of Friday.
Pompeo began his tenure by laying out 12 demands
of Iran and pursued a policy of crushing sanctions for the subsequent two and half years. That “maximum pressure” policy saw the US consistently isolated from its major allies — glaringly so, for example, when it tried to extend a conventional weapons embargo
on Iran last year. Rather than constraint, the administration’s approach has led to a more belligerent Tehran. It increasingly breached the commitments it made under the Iran nuclear deal, which the US abandoned in May 2018. Iran recently announced
it would enrich uranium up to 20% purity.
“If we had stayed in the JCPOA, they never would have done that,” the first former senior State Department official said.
The US also saw itself isolated from allies on Israel as the Trump administration relocated its embassy to Jerusalem and broke with historic and international precedent to recognize Israeli sovereignty
over the Golan Heights – territory taken from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War.
Pompeo announced in November 2019
that the US would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank de facto illegal, a major reversal of the US’ longstanding policy.
“Nobody really wanted to touch it, and he was willing to touch it,” US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said of the prior position on settlements, which had been in place since 1978. Friedman, a Trump political appointee, told CNN that Pompeo commissioned “a good amount of energy within the legal department of State” to make it happen.
Fueling 2024 speculation
During one of his last trips as top US diplomat, Pompeo became the first secretary of state
to visit one of the settlements, which are considered illegal under international law, as well as the Golan Heights. The visit fueled speculation about his 2024 presidential ambitions
, as it was seen by some as an attempt to appeal to US evangelical voters.
This was far from Pompeo’s first apparent outreach to the conservative American evangelical community. Last year, he spoke at a megachurch in Texas, appeared at the conservative Values Voters Summit, and delivered the keynote address
for a conservative, anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion Christian organization in Florida. The former Kansas congressman has used his position to institute religious freedom policies and strong anti-abortion measures.
In Israel, Pompeo recorded a speech for the Republican National Convention
, a stark break from his past secretaries who largely avoided partisan politics while in office, an apparent breach of his own State Department regulations, and a possible violation of the law. The State Department said at the time he was making the speech in his personal capacity and no taxpayer resources were used.
His time in office was marked by several Office of Inspector General inquiries, including one into potential misuse of taxpayer resources
by himself and his wife, and a controversial ouster of inspector general Steve Linick.
Pompeo waded into the domestic political fray in July remarks at the unveiling of the draft report from his long-touted
“Commission on Unalienable Rights,” casting ire at the New York Times’ “1619 Project” and warning that “the very core of what it means to be an American, indeed the American way of life itself, is under attack” amid nationwide protests for racial justice and against police brutality.
But on the underlying issue motivating those protests, Pompeo remained largely silent. He did not immediately comment
on the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, to the disappointment of diplomats who spoke to CNN.
And when he was asked about Trump forcibly removing peaceful protesters from outside of the White House and the message it projected to the world, Pompeo scoffed at the question. It was one of many contentious exchanges between the free press and the top US diplomat, who once excoriated an NPR reporter
in a statement bearing the State Department seal.
He used one of his final public speeches to accuse the Voice of America news service
of “demeaning America” in a speech that a watchdog group criticized as “political propaganda” and a violation of the government-funded agency’s own rules. A VOA reporter who attempted to ask Pompeo a question following that speech — during which he took no queries from journalists — was quickly reassigned.
Failure to restore the Department’s ‘swagger’
In his early days on the job Pompeo promised the State Department would get its “swagger” back
under his leadership, but many diplomats have told CNN he failed.
Sources said there were high hopes for the outset of his tenure, as he took over a department decimated under Tillerson, with the first senior State Department official telling CNN that Pompeo made “significant headway at the beginning of his tenure” in making the State Department relevant to the President.
That changed drastically with Trump’s first impeachment “and this kind of remarkable parade of senior State Department officials who are subpoenaed and called to the Hill to testify against him,” the official said.
The most prevalent of those State Department officials was highly respected former US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch
, who was removed from her post after a coordinated campaign by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others.
As she was repeatedly impugned by Trump, Pompeo remained silent. Morale plummeted
“I remain disappointed that the department’s leadership and others have declined to acknowledge that the attacks against me and others are dangerously wrong,” she testified before lawmakers
in November 2019. “This is about far more than me or a couple of individuals. As Foreign Service professionals are being denigrated and undermined, the institution is also being degraded. This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already.”
Some former diplomats said that Pompeo deserves credit for preventing Trump from doing further damage to the Department in the wake of the first impeachment.
But many officials and diplomats who spoke to CNN throughout his tenure believed that Pompeo repeatedly relinquished his duty to support, protect and inspire the diplomatic corps when tumult at home impinged on their work to advocate for American democracy around the world, from the crackdowns on peaceful protesters
in the US to his failure to initially acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory
to most recently with his response to the violent insurrection at the Capitol.
Pompeo’s public response in the aftermath of the attack consisted of three tweets condemning the violence and calling for those responsible to be held accountable. They were a brief interlude in his tweets about “America First” accomplishments. For some his actions in his final days was the breaking point.
“What we saw on Wednesday is the antithesis of the work of the State Department,” said a State Department political appointee who quit the week of the protests. “I do not see how this is any different than an attack on one of our embassies. I cannot believe that Secretary Pompeo has demonstrated such a lack of leadership on this. It is absolutely disgraceful.”