The rest of Washington may be turning on Donald Trump, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is standing by his man.
After the president decided earlier this week to pull U.S. troops out Syria, he found himself isolated. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned in protest. Normally friendly congressional Republicans raged. America’s allies were stunned.
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Enter Mike Pompeo. “It no longer makes sense for there to be 2,000 soldiers stationed there,” he said this week, even as reports emerged that he privately disagreed with the move.
Such willingness to defend Trump — no matter the potential damage to his reputation — is par for the course for Pompeo. The diplomat is a former congressman from Kansas with a reputation as a highly partisan Republican, and he has worked exceedingly hard to stay in Trump’s good graces. He often tries to spin Trump’s unpopular actions in a positive light — even agreeing to pose for a smile-filled photo with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman at the height of outrage over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Pompeo’s supporters say this is simply the secretary of State’s job: give honest opinions privately, but toe the company line publicly. But Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria — and potentially Afghanistan — has alarmed so many people in D.C. and beyond that Pompeo’s outward support risks squandering his credibility, critics say.
“Pompeo publicly parrots whatever he thinks the president wants him to say, and foreign leaders have a very tough time putting themselves next to a parrot that is trumpeting ‘America First’,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official who now serves as president of the Global Situation Room, a crisis management consulting firm. “And there’s no proof that any private reassurances, if in fact, Pompeo is offering them, can be taken to the bank.”
Former CIA Director John Brennan went even further. “Now we’re left with people who are yes men, whether it be a Mike Pompeo or John Bolton or others,” Brennan said on MSNBC, naming the national security adviser alongside the secretary of State. “These are individuals who have not demonstrated any backbone and spine in terms of standing up.”
According to an Associated Press account of how Trump came to his decision, Pompeo joined Mattis, Bolton and others in trying to convince the president not to remove the troops after he indicated he wanted to in a Dec. 14 phone call with the Turkish president.
The efforts made little impression on Trump, who used Twitter on Wednesday to confirm his decision on the withdrawal, justifying it with the specious claim that the troops had achieved their goal of defeating the Islamic State terrorist group. While military experts agree that the network, also known as ISIS, has lost most of its territory in the region, many of its fighters remain at large and could regroup.
As the news of Trump’s decision quickly spread, Pompeo initially kept his head down.
He appeared briefly before the cameras on Wednesday alongside visiting foreign dignitaries, grinning tightly while ignoring reporters’ questions about Syria. He issued no formal public statement on the decision, and his only tweet of the day was about a favorite subject: constraining Iran.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a usual ally of Trump’s who is furious over the Syria decision, said that as recently as Wednesday, Pompeo had told him conditions “were not ripe yet” for the U.S. troops to leave.
By Thursday, though, Pompeo was giving interviews to Fox News and Kansas media outlets in which he disputed early accounts that Trump blindsided his national security team with the decision. He also pushed back against those arguing that withdrawal could lead to an ISIS resurgence.
“This was a decision that was made with lots of consultation between all the senior-level officials, including myself, with the president,” Pompeo told Fox News. “I had more than a heads-up.”
“We’ve eliminated over 90 percent of the actual real estate [the Islamic State] held. We’ve had a very successful effort there,” Pompeo asserted in another interview. “But it no longer makes sense for there to be 2,000 soldiers stationed there.”
When pressed on whether a lack of U.S. military presence would embolden terrorists, Pompeo insisted — without offering specifics — that the fight against the Islamic State and other groups would not be derailed.
“We will, in an orderly way, make a transition so that we can continue to keep Americans safe without expending as much blood and treasure of the American people in Syria,” Pompeo said.
On Friday, Pompeo used the term “territorial defeat” in a call with Iraq’s Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi to describe the vanquishing of ISIS. He vowed that America would help eliminate the “remnants.”
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment. A person with knowledge of Pompeo’s decision-making process said the approach is logical for a Cabinet head.
“Trump gets to make the decision [on troops], and once the decision is made, Pompeo implements it,” the person said. “Just because Pompeo hasn’t disagreed with the president publicly doesn’t mean anything except that he is doing his job. And that includes giving the president his honest and best information. How he feels personally doesn’t matter.”
Pompeo had been planning to visit the Middle East next month and giving a speech in Cairo about the U.S. role in the region. It’s not clear whether the debate over Syria will affect those plans.
Ever since joining the Trump administration, first as the CIA director, then secretary of State, Pompeo has tried to shield Trump from criticism or explain away some of his more confounding actions.
When Trump declared that North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat, Pompeo told bewildered lawmakers that Trump was, in a way, right. Pyongyang had stopped their missile tests, he offered. .
Pompeo has also tried to protect Trump from intense bipartisan anger over Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi, who had been living in the United States.
After Trump proclaimed that the Saudi crown prince would not be personally punished for the murder, despite widespread suspicion that he was directly involved, Pompeo stressed before the cameras that the CIA has “no direct evidence” linking the Saudi royal to the killing.
But after senators themselves reviewed the case with CIA Director Gina Haspel, they effectively dismissed Pompeo’s claims. The Senate later passed a resolution declaring that the crown prince was “responsible” for the early October murder in Istanbul.
Foreign policy experts see a more startling component to Pompeo’s public defense of the Syria withdrawal. They say the move hinders the State Department’s ability to engage in diplomacy involving Syria by removing some of its leverage.
It also restricts the U.S. government’s ability to confront Iran, which is funding its own militant groups in the region and represents menacing presence to Israel, a close U.S. ally. Pompeo has long fixated on containing Iran.
The abrupt U.S. exit undercuts the message that Pompeo’s own diplomats were pushing as recently as earlier this week. James Jeffrey, the department’s representative for Syria engagement, gave a speech on Monday forecasting a sustained U.S. role in the Arab country.
Afghanistan is another loaded situation. A U.S. military draw-down could hamstring State Department-led efforts to pursue peace talks with the Taliban. The Islamist government in Tehran also has influence in Afghanistan.
On Capitol Hill, Pompeo’s latest comments have led to much eye-rolling, if little surprise.
Some Hill staffers pointed to Mattis’ resignation letter, in which he wrote that the president deserved to have a secretary of defense whose “views are better aligned” with Trump’s own.
Pompeo seems to be making clear, at least in public, that his views are aligned with Trump’s, they said.
“There is no reason we should not take Secretary Pompeo at his word,” a Democratic aide said.
Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.