For Mike Pompeo, a Moment of Singular Influence

WASHINGTON — It took about five minutes after John R. 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 Mr. Pompeo would give up his post as secretary of state to succeed Mr. 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 the now-legendary Henry A. Kissinger did in the 1970s.

The notion may be fanciful; it may only be the fevered dream of Mr. Pompeo’s ambitious camp. But even if it never comes to pass, just the fact that it was floated speaks volumes about how singular a figure Mr. Pompeo has become in President Trump’s factional foreign policy circle, the victor in his cage match with Mr. Bolton and the one true survivor as every other original member of the national security team has been cast aside or fled.

Unlike Mr. Bolton or other departed advisers like H.R. McMaster, Rex W. Tillerson, Jim Mattis or Dan Coats, Mr. Pompeo has navigated Mr. Trump’s choppy presidency without capsizing. While conservative like Mr. Bolton, Mr. 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 Mr. Trump’s administration is impermanence. Next week, Mr. 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 Mr. Trump.

But at the moment, no other foreign policy adviser has the president’s ear like Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton’s exit gives him a chance to further enhance his influence.

Even if he does not take on twin titles, the list of apparent candidates for the national security adviser job includes a couple of Mr. Pompeo’s special envoys, Stephen E. Biegun and Brian Hook, either of whom would give Mr. Pompeo a stronger connection to the White House than he had during Mr. Bolton’s 17-month tenure.

And he already has important allies at the Defense Department — Secretary Mark T. Esper was a West Point classmate — and at the C.I.A., whose director, Gina Haspel, previously worked for Mr. Pompeo when he ran the agency at the start of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Yet Mr. Pompeo’s own commitment to the administration has been in question lately as he flirts with a possible run for the Senate from Kansas. He has months to decide and the emergence of a new national security structure without Mr. Bolton and with his own role enhanced could tilt the odds toward him staying.

For Mr. Pompeo, 55, the rise to the top of Mr. Trump’s team is the culmination of a rocket ride from obscurity in just eight years. A backbench Republican congressman from Kansas, he made himself into a hero of conservatives and the bête 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 C.I.A. director and then as secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo has shown a knack for connecting with Mr. Trump. Widely viewed as smart and strategic, if at times testy and even bombastic, Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Pompeo’s complicated interests. He pleased Mr. 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, whch often is dovish,” said James Jay Carafano, a national security scholar at the Heritage Foundation. “So there’s a lot of triangulation there.”

ImageHenry A. Kissinger, right, with President Richard M. Nixon in 1973. Mr. Kissinger was the only person to simultaneously serve as both secretary of state and national security adviser.
CreditGeorge Tames/The New York Times

But putting him in dual roles like Mr. Kissinger held under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford would be fraught with risks — some for Mr. 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 national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., 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 American 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,” Mr. Kahl said.

Yet Ms. Schake noted that Mr. 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.

The prospect of being the most powerful national security figure since Mr. Kissinger would hold obvious appeal for Mr. Pompeo. As Mr. Nixon’s national security adviser, Mr. Kissinger played an outsized role and effectively overshadowed Secretary of State William P. Rogers, so that when Mr. Rogers stepped down, it made sense to formalize his expanded role.

When Mr. Nixon resigned, Mr. Ford kept Mr. Kissinger in both jobs after he became president, but ultimately the dual role came to be problematic and, in a broader reshuffling of his team, the president stripped Mr. Kissinger of his national security adviser title and left him at State.

Instead, it was his successor, Brent Scowcroft, who became known as the model national security adviser. He was known for letting agencies present their views, and not coloring them with his own. He was so successful that he was later brought back for a second stint in the job under President George Bush.

For Mr. Pompeo, the challenge would be satisfying his boss while convincing the rest of the national security establishment that he was a neutral player — and also representing the views of the State Department.

One recent former White House official said the biggest risk for Mr. Pompeo would be “proximity.” The official noted that while it was one thing to move in and out of the White House, Mr. Trump frequently tires of those who are constantly in his sight — and, eventually, seek to contain his instincts. As the former official noted, an adviser loses altitude as soon as he settles into an adjoining office.

“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 Mr. Trump was reported to be upset in 2017 when, Stephen K. 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.

David Rothkopf, who has also written about the history of the National Security Council, noted other risks of giving both jobs to Mr. Pompeo. “It might seem tempting and fuss free to Trump, but it would be a big mistake,” he said. “It would be tempting because Trump is comfortable with Pompeo and he won’t have to at least attempt or pretend to introduce someone new into his inner circle.”

But Mr. Rothkopf noted that such a move would be complicated by the fact that Mr. 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. 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.”

Whether he takes the second job or simply continues in the one he already has, Mr. Pompeo now has a window of opportunity to shape Mr. 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 rain drops so far, but how long does that last?” said Mr. Gans. “No one else on the national security side has managed to stay dry forever.”

Source: NYT

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