By Peter Baker and David E. Sanger
It took about five minutes after John Bolton’s unceremonious fall from grace this week before Washington’s official whisper factory started floating a surprising suggestion for a replacement: Mike Pompeo.
Not that Pompeo would give up his post as secretary of state to succeed Bolton as national security adviser. Instead, he would take on both jobs, occupying the corner West Wing office and the Foggy Bottom diplomatic headquarters simultaneously, just as Henry Kissinger did in the 1970s.
The notion may have always been fanciful, and by late Thursday, President Donald Trump seemed to have ruled it out. But just the fact that he considered it speaks volumes about how singular a figure Pompeo has become in President Donald Trump’s factional foreign policy circle, the victor in his cage match with Bolton and the one true survivor as every other original member of the national security team has been cast aside or fled.
Unlike Bolton or other departed advisers like H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis or Dan Coats, Pompeo has navigated Trump’s choppy presidency without capsizing. While conservative like Bolton, Pompeo has learned to advance his policy goals where he can, dispense with them when he has to and keep himself in the good graces of a notoriously fickle commander in chief.
“Secretary Pompeo has figured out how to advise the president in ways the president wants,” said Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and a former National Security Council official under President George W. Bush.
For now, anyway. As the last 32 months have shown, the only permanent aspect of Trump’s administration is impermanence. Next week, Pompeo could just as easily find himself on the wrong side of the president — even the talk of his potentially taking both jobs might irritate Trump.
But at the moment, no other foreign policy adviser has the president’s ear like Pompeo, and Bolton’s exit gives him a chance to further enhance his influence.
Even without Pompeo’s taking on twin titles, the list of apparent candidates for the national security adviser job includes a couple of his special envoys, Stephen Biegun and Brian Hook, either of whom would give Pompeo a stronger connection to the White House than he had during Bolton’s 17-month tenure.
And he already has important allies at the Defense Department — Secretary Mark Esper was a West Point classmate — and at the CIA, whose director, Gina Haspel, previously worked for Pompeo when he ran the agency at the start of Trump’s presidency.
Yet Pompeo’s own commitment to the administration has been in question lately as he flirts with a possible run for the Senate in Kansas. He has months to decide, and the emergence of a new national security structure without Bolton and with his own role enhanced could tilt the odds toward him staying.
For Pompeo, 55, the rise to the top of Trump’s team is the culmination of a rocket ride from obscurity in only eight years. A backbench Republican congressman from Kansas, he made himself into a hero of conservatives and the bete noire of liberals with an aggressive performance on the committee investigating Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state, over the 2012 attack on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
First as CIA director and then as secretary of state, Pompeo has shown a knack for connecting with Trump. Widely viewed as smart and strategic, if at times testy and even bombastic, Pompeo has made loyalty to the president his first “mission set,” a phrase he uses constantly from his time at West Point and in the Army.
And while he agreed with and facilitated the president’s desire to abandon the international nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated by President Barack Obama, he also kept private any skepticism he may have had over Trump’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea and Iran.
Even the recent collapse of the proposed peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan may have served Pompeo’s complicated interests. He pleased Trump by delivering a deal as requested, and yet when the president canceled it over a suicide bomb attack, he was off the hook for whatever blowback the deal might have caused.
“Pompeo is a guy who on one hand wants to deliver for the president and is often also the guy who kind of has to placate the State Department, which often is dovish,” said James Jay Carafano, a national security scholar at the Heritage Foundation. “So there’s a lot of triangulation there.”
The prospect of being the most powerful national security figure since Kissinger would hold obvious appeal for Pompeo. As President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, Kissinger played an outsize role and effectively overshadowed Secretary of State William P. Rogers, so that when Rogers stepped down, it made sense to formalize his expanded role.
When Nixon resigned, President Gerald Ford kept Kissinger in both jobs, but ultimately the dual role came to be problematic and, in a broader reshuffling of his team, the president stripped Kissinger of his national security adviser title and left him at the State Department. Trump told reporters on Thursday that he discussed a similar arrangement with Pompeo.
“I actually spoke to Mike Pompeo about that,” the president said. “I get along with him so well. We have a lot of the same views — a couple different views. But he likes the idea of having someone in there with him and I do too.” He added that he was considering 15 other candidates.
Putting Pompeo in dual roles like Kissinger would have been fraught with risks — some for Pompeo, and many for the national security establishment, which, in more normal times has come to view the National Security Council as a somewhat neutral arbiter among competing departments and agencies, from the Pentagon to the State Department to the intelligence agencies.
Colin Kahl, who was the top foreign policy aide to Vice President Joe Biden, noted that the national security adviser is expected to focus on the inside game, staffing the president and coordinating a collection of agencies and departments, while the secretary of state is the public face of U.S. diplomacy.
“Given how much care and feeding Trump needs from staff, and how complex and fast-moving the world is — even compared to Kissinger’s time — it is hard to imagine anyone effectively playing both roles,” Kahl said.
Yet Schake noted that Trump clearly does not want the kind of rigorous interagency process that other presidents have had, and so in that sense there may be less of a problem in combining the roles. “But mainly what appointing Pompeo to both State and NSA jobs would show is that, like Nixon, President Trump doesn’t actually trust anybody else,” she said.
Yet presumably Pompeo understood the risks, as well. Proximity to this president has not always worked out for his advisers. Trump frequently tires of those who are constantly in his sight — and, eventually, seek to contain his instincts.
“The biggest reason this is unworkable though is that Trump is too insecure to rest this much prestige in one adviser,” agreed John Gans, author of “White House Warriors,” a new book on the National Security Council.
He noted that Trump was reported to be upset in 2017 when, Stephen Bannon, then his chief strategist, landed on the cover of Time magazine. “How is he going to feel when everyone rightly calls Pompeo the most powerful foreign policy player since Kissinger?” he asked.
No matter who takes over from Bolton, the job may not be what it once was. Trump often “tweets out positions before deliberations had taken place,” forcing aides to reverse-engineer a policymaking process to justify a decision that has already been made, noted David Rothkopf, who has also written about the history of the National Security Council. The result is that national security adviser “isn’t much of a role under Trump — in fact, it is both the most negligible and the most dysfunctional NSC process since the Reagan years and the debacle of Iran-Contra.”
Either way, Pompeo now has a window of opportunity to shape Trump’s foreign policy as no other adviser has been able to do. He has shown that he may try to steer the president but will not try too hard to dissuade him from his strongest impulses. Instead, it seems, he will wait for his moments and make the most of them.
Whether that dynamic is sustainable, of course, is anyone’s guess. “Pompeo has been able to walk through the raindrops so far, but how long does that last?” Gans said. “No one else on the national security side has managed to stay dry forever.”