Not much is predictable about President Donald Trump’s White House. But around 11 a.m. on any given day, you would likely find CIA chief Mike Pompeo in the Oval Office, briefing the commander-in-chief. For 30 minutes or so, Pompeo would help Trump digest the country’s most closely held secrets about the world’s most pressing conflicts. He used “killer graphics” to keep Trump on point. He carved out time for general “knowledge building” on long-term strategy. He fielded Trump’s questions on any number of topics.
In other words, long before Trump’s announcement Tuesday morning on Twitter that Pompeo is replacing Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, Pompeo, a former congressman, was doing what Tillerson had not — bonding with the first American president never to have served either in politics or the military. When Trump and his advisers gather for their national security policy meetings in the Situation Room, Trump goes around the table. First, Pompeo offers Trump the CIA’s latest analysis on the issue at hand, says a senior administration official. Then, he waits. Inevitably, Trump returns to his top spy. “Mike,” the Trump asks, “what do you think I should do?”
Pompeo’s standing with Trump is such that the major question raised by his abrupt transfer to the State Department — once approved by the Senate, as it almost surely will be — is whether it amounts to a promotion of U.S. diplomacy. The State Department has withered under Tillerson, who proposed slashing its budget and left key posts unfilled, decimating morale across the Foreign Service. Aggravating the decline was the rocky relationship between Tillerson and Trump. Trump mocked Tillerson on Twitter, and publicly broke with his top diplomat on approaches to scuffles with Qatar, and North Korea. On North Korea, Trump said Tillerson was “wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.”
Meanwhile, at the CIA, Pompeo has earned Trump’s trust heading the federal agency the President entered office most clearly perceiving as an enemy. By the time of his inauguration, Trump was shoulder-deep in an extraordinary public feud with the entire national intelligence apparatus, which together had concluded that Russia tried to tip the 2016 election in his favor. “Are we living in Nazi Germany?” he asked on Twitter. He praised WikiLeaks, the CIA’s enemy. And when it came to the Presidential Daily Briefing, he dismissed the need for it outright, saying he was “a smart person.” In a world full of challenging decisions, “That was frankly a dangerous moment for the country,” says Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama’s former CIA director and Secretary of Defense.
Pompeo, a blunt talking Kansan, has changed that, in part by finding chemistry with the blunt-talking New Yorker in the Oval Office. “He is in many ways the perfect consigliere to the president,” says Daniel Hoffman, a veteran CIA station chief who retired last year. “Because the director and the president are so close, things are effective and efficient for the agency.”
Politicians have led the CIA before, but Pompeo has been the most active in recent memory. He goes on the Sunday shows to defend Trump from the latest criticism. He championed Trump’s tweets taunting Kim Jong Un on nuclear war. In October, Pompeo even said that Russian meddling “did not affect” the outcome of the 2016 election, prompting the CIA to quickly clarify that its actual intelligence assessment — which doesn’t answer the question of whether Russian meddling impacted the outcome — had not changed.
Pompeo was always ambitious and successful. Trump loves to brag that Pompeo, now 54, graduated top of his class at West Point. He deployed to the border between East and West Germany during the Cold War, returned to Harvard Law and edited the Law Review, and joined a top law firm in Washington. Pompeo then turned to business, launching an aerospace manufacturing business in Kansas funded in part by Koch Industries, the industrial behemoth headed by the billionaire brothers known for their funding of conservative and libertarian causes. (The private equity arm of the Kochs provided capital for Meredith’s acquisition of former TIME parent company Time Inc.) The local political class started to notice him as donor who would go door-to-door for candidates, and he became the state’s Republican national committeeman.
Largely a political unknown, Pompeo set his sights on Congress in 2010 when the Tea Party was disrupting Washington. Early on, Pompeo was not favored to win his primary. Kansas’ recent 2008 presidential favorite Mike Huckabee endorsed one of his opponents. But Pompeo came from behind, hammering Obama’s signature health care law, the rising deficit, and a Washington that had “fundamentally lost its way.” KochPAC, aviation executives, and social conservatives soon endorsed him. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain co-hosted a fundraiser.
Pompeo won, and moved into his new Capitol Hill office just down the hall from then-Indiana Republican Rep. Mike Pence. Wonky, domestic fights like GMO food labeling and ethanol subsidies defined his start in Washington. Former staffers cite his pragmatism, and say he would focus not on the bill he could write but the one he could get passed. His first piece of legislation that became law modernized small aircraft regulations, and passed the House with unanimous bipartisan support. Obama signed it into law.
Once Pompeo joined the House Intelligence Committee, he would spend two hours a day reading security assessments in within Congress’ secure rooms. Books on North Korea and Hezbollah would appear overnight on his desk. “He didn’t go on TV and beat his chest or declare himself to be the great fighter for the conservative face against John Boehner,” says his friend Tom Cotton, a Republican Senator from Arkansas. “He voted his conscience and his convictions.”
Yet conflict quickly brought him notice. Pompeo was one of just a handful of Republicans to support Obama’s call for a red line in Syria, angering Christian communities at home in Kansas. He railed against the Iran nuclear deal even when aviation suppliers in his district hoped to sell aircraft to Iran. Pompeo opposed the Obama administration’s plans to close Guantánamo Bay. He pushed for wider domestic surveillance and said “traitor Edward Snowden” deserved the death penalty. Most memorably, he repeatedly accused Hillary Clinton of covering up the 2012 attacks on a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. When Clinton was running for president, Pompeo was “hopeful” she would be charged for having classified information on her private email server.
It paid off. As Trump swept the GOP primaries, Pompeo was mulling his own political future. He had nearly a dozen conversations with Kansas political operatives about running for governor, but ended up finding footing in the presidential race. Originally a Marco Rubio supporter, Pompeo prepped Pence on Iran and Libya for his vice-presidential debate. When Pence took over Trump’s transition, Pompeo’s name appeared on a short list for national security posts. Pompeo got a surprise call, and was soon sitting down at Trump Tower to sit down with the president-elect for the first time.
Trump was sold in less than 45 minutes. Trump asked Pompeo who his favorite general was. Sherman, Pompeo replied, referring to the Union Civil War general known as the father of American “total war.” He’d even named his old golden retriever Sherman in his honor. Trump loved it, and cancelled the eight other interviews he’d had lined up.
If the timing was abrupt, Pompeo’s shift to the State Department after just over a year came as no surprise. In December, soon after news broke that some Trump advisers were considering Pompeo to take over Rex Tillerson’s job as Secretary of State, Pompeo called chief of staff Gen. John Kelly to assure he was happy at CIA. He has been raising his national profile in recent weeks, doing Sunday shows and speaking to forums. He has influence elsewhere inside the administration, too. First Lady Melania Trump named Pompeo’s former foreign policy and communications advisor to be her new director of policy, and Pompeo’s former chief of staff is running the reorganization at the United States Agency for International Development – which historically works with both diplomats and spies.
And even as Pompeo commits to leading the State Department for the foreseeable future, there’s no reason to believe it will be his last stop. Behind the scenes, Pompeo stays connected to his base, an unusual move for a CIA director. One Sunday in early November, with Trump off in Japan, Pompeo and his wife Susan went home to Kansas for a reception with more than 100 of his longtime campaign volunteers, held in the same hall they used for their campaign meetings, according to a person who attended. Last summer, Faith and Freedom Coalition founder Ralph Reed, a longtime friend, hosted a call for Trump’s top evangelical supporters to pray for Pompeo and to receive an informal briefing about his work. Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress, who has said that God gave Trump “authority to take out Kim Jong-Un,” prayed for Pompeo’s protection and thanked God for putting him in the job.