Just last week, a particularly chaotic time at the White House, President Trump told reporters that he liked conflict. He said he enjoyed hearing disparate views before making decisions.
But only to a point it seems. In Mike Pompeo, whom Trump nominated Tuesday to replace Rex Tillerson as secretary of State, the president gets someone more attuned to his erratic style and flamboyant personality, and someone who may more readily agree with him than Tillerson did.
That could help Pompeo operate as the nation’s top diplomat, since foreign governments are more likely to view him as speaking directly for Trump when it comes to North Korea, Iran, trade disputes and other foreign policy issues. Tillerson had credibility problems because he publicly disagreed with Trump on several major issues.
“I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time,” Trump said Tuesday, minutes after he announced Tillerson’s dismissal in a Twitter post. “Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect, we’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good and that’s what I need as secretary of State.”
On policy, Pompeo is also likely to hew closer to Trump’s views, although those can often be moving targets. More important, in addition to clearly enjoying Trump’s confidence, he has deeply honed political skills that Tillerson, a former ExxonMobil CEO with no government experience, lacked — including an ease at dealing with Congress and the press.
The downside, however, is that Pompeo might be inclined to withhold information that challenges Trump’s preconceived world view.
As director of the CIA since the beginning of the Trump administration 14 months ago, Pompeo is the person who most frequently gives Trump his morning intelligence briefing. Trump is notoriously uninterested in details, so Pompeo has shortened the material and reportedly avoids critical issues such as Russian interference in U.S. interests, which might anger the boss.
“A lot of it has to do with personal chemistry, and he obviously has that,” Rep. Frank A. LoBiondo, a New Jersey Republican who leads a House Intelligence subcommittee overseeing the CIA, said in an interview. LoBiondo also credited Pompeo with “turning around” the CIA, improving morale and making it more efficient.
But Democratic lawmakers said failure to challenge Trump could be dangerous. Tillerson was often seen as a moderating force who could calm some of Trump’s more rash positions.
“There’s a pattern and practice to dismiss anyone with whom this president has a policy difference, and that appears to be the case with Secretary Tillerson,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said. “I regret to say this, but it appears any number of things can put you on the wrong side of President Trump, who appears to have very little patience with anyone who has a different point of view,”
Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was even tougher: “Secretary Tillerson’s firing sets a profoundly disturbing precedent in which standing up for our allies against Russian aggression is grounds for a humiliating dismissal.”
Publicly however, Pompeo has not been shy about Russian meddling. He joined other top intelligence community officials in congressional testimony last month to warn that Moscow is mounting another campaign to intervene in upcoming U.S. elections.
A lawyer by profession, Pompeo, 54, represented Kansas in the U.S. House of Representatives for six years through 2016, graduated from West Point in 1986 and was an army officer who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
He was born in Orange and raised in Santa Ana.
Relations forged in his military and political careers have served him well in Washington, where he is liked by many colleagues. They note he is intelligent and hard-working, even when they disagree with him.
Critics, however, say they are troubled by his failure to condemn torture during his CIA confirmation hearing, and journalists have unearthed old, since-deleted tweets that showed him speaking favorably about hackers who stole Democratic National Committee emails that painted some Democrats in a negative light.
He has opposed same-sex marriage, drawing criticism from the gay community, and on Tuesday the Council on American-Islamic Relations accused him of expressing anti-Muslim views and urged the Senate to reject his nomination.
Pompeo is far more hawkish than Tillerson, and some experts said that could complicate already fraught dealings with countries such as North Korea.
However, Daniel Russel, former assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific affairs under the Obama administration, said Pompeo’s recent position as head of the CIA actually might be a boost.
“The job of ‘spy chief’ is one [the North Koreans] fully understand and respect,” Russel said, noting that South Korea’s intelligence chief was one of two envoys sent to Pyongyang to explore talks. “That may give Pompeo a certain advantage.”
Speculation about Pompeo replacing Tillerson began late last year, though in recent weeks, Tillerson — who once said he wasn’t interested in the job as America’s top diplomat and hadn’t met Trump before interviewing for the post — seemed to have weathered the storm.
He started to give more interviews to the press and appeared to have figured out how to handle Trump, sometimes delaying going to the president until the options were narrow enough on a particular issue that Trump would be forced to choose the one Tillerson preferred.
But in the end, his oft-repeated lament that he didn’t really understand how Washington worked proved all too true.
Los Angeles Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire in Washington contributed to this report.