The White House’s unwillingness to push back forcefully on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s request to question former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul is among the most disturbing developments of the Trump Administration. First, President Donald Trump called the idea “interesting.” The following day, the White House Press Secretary tried to clean up the president’s statement, saying that the president would consider the request after speaking with his national security staff. This only made the situation worse, forcing the controversy to continue for a third day, when Press Secretary Sarah Sanders issued a statement, off-camera, that the President “disagrees” with the proposal. The statement does not address the absurdity of the request or his commitment to protecting American diplomats. Until there is an unequivocal rejection of the proposal, the United States will appear weak to the world.
The same may be said of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who needs to push for a much stronger response. Whether the secretary is successful in convincing the president to reject the proposal on-camera in the strongest possible terms will be a test of his ability to balance his relationship with the president with his reputation at Foggy Bottom and in the international community.
Mike Pompeo was chosen to be secretary because he was the candidate the president believed would be loyal to him, no matter what he said or did. President Trump had already appointed him CIA Director, and had come to trust that he would not call the president “a moron,” as had former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, or leak unflattering stories to the press, as the National Security Council staff had done under former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. A former politician himself, and one who may still harbor political ambitions, Secretary Pompeo has yet to cross the president in public, nor have reports surfaced of him doing so in private. Clearly, his relationship with the president is vital to his success and protecting the political capital he’s built should be a consideration to ensure long-term influence with the White House. Today is the day that he should start using that capital.
Remember that Mike Pompeo came to Foggy Bottom following Tillerson, perhaps the Secretary of State least liked by U.S. diplomats in modern times. Secretary Pompeo arrived with his own baggage, namely his partisan attacks on the Department’s career staff for the tragic deaths at the U.S. facility in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. But the Department gave him a chance and appreciated his announcement that he was lifting the wildly unpopular hiring freeze and the restrictions on hiring family members overseas. Just as important was that he had far more influence with President Trump than Secretary Tillerson ever did.
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But in the weeks since he was sworn in as the 70th Secretary of State in April, many of his staff say the bloom is coming off the rose. They — and more importantly, foreign diplomats — are watching anxiously to see if Secretary Pompeo can deliver results.
Internally, lifting the hiring freeze has improved things far less than expected, with the Department still hindered by a lack of staff, leaving the rank and file frustrated that an early promise was oversold. Photo ops on social media showing the Secretary and embassy staff together and other internal efforts to bring “swagger” back to State are beginning to be seen as merely the image management of a savvy politician.
Externally, the highest-profile effort of the secretary’s brief tenure — convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons — includes a presidential summit most notable for giving Kim Jong Un an immense boost in international legitimacy and getting very little in return. Secretary Pompeo’s most recent trip to Pyongyang was a failure, making little if any progress on recovering the remains of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War, and more importantly, on the beginnings of a roadmap to North Korea’s denuclearization.
Even as the U.S. bungles negotiations with its enemies, Secretary Pompeo been unable to reverse White House trade policies that have set back relations with our closest allies in Europe, Asia, and Latin America, to say nothing of yet another disastrous NATO Summit. The Secretary needs to prove that he is able to get some wins either internationally or internally to avoid beginning to lose the goodwill he entered with three months ago.
That brings us to July 18 and 19, when White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that there was “some conversation” between Presidents Trump and Putin about allowing Russian law-enforcement officials to question former U.S. Ambassador McFaul, and then followed it up the next day with a statement that the president merely “disagrees” with the proposal. This is when the secretary must call in his chips and demand that the president make clear that he will protect our current and former diplomats. The president must reject Putin’s demand quickly, strongly, and on camera. This statement released by the White House will not suffice. As a last resort, Secretary Pompeo should stand up for his staff in an on-camera statement to the State Department press corps, so the world can see that if the president will not stand by America’s diplomats, at least he will.
This is a career-defining moment for Mike Pompeo. If he succeeds, he will demonstrate that he can use his close relationship with President Trump to truly lead America’s foreign policy and rebuild the morale of America’s oldest Cabinet agency. If he does not, he will be seen as yet another in a long line of administration officials unable or unwilling to clean up one of President Trump’s potentially disastrous foreign policy decisions. The world is watching to see if he has the courage and the political savvy to truly be a leader in his Department, in this administration, and around the globe.