These things used to be a joke, sometimes an extended joke, like the 1961 hit Broadway musical How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – young, ambitious J. Pierrepont Finch rises from window washer to chairman of the board of the World Wide Wicket Company. He has no talent. He has no skills. But he has a book that tells who to flatter and when, and when and how to lie, but not maliciously, and when to hide. It’s a cool show. There’s a lot of pleasant and quite clever singing and dancing. But the next day at work the whole thing seems sad and depressing – because anyone who has worked in a large organization knows that none of this stuff is funny, because it’s all quite real. Talent and hard work don’t matter all that much.
Other things matter. Who do you know? What did you just say? Who is saying what about you? Which pleasant idiot do you have to say is a genius now? What fool do you have to look in the eye and tell him he’s wonderful? And what good will any of that do anyway? You’re not getting the promotion. And how do you wash off the stench of all this when you get home at the end of the day? Don’t kick the dog. Fido did nothing. Pour yourself a stiff drink. There had been no singing and dancing where you work.
Broadway is one thing. Real life is another. How do people get from nowhere to somewhere, from the bottom to the top? No one has Finch’s book of instructions in never-get-caught flattery and deceit. There is no such book, but people do get from there at the bottom to here at the top. There must be a book.
There’s Los Amigos High School out here in Fountain Valley, down in Orange County, part of the Garden Grove Unified School District. Orange County used to be ultra-conservative Republican, but Garden Grove is getting pretty Vietnamese and the county is all mixed up, so the place has turned blue – Democratic – but it’s still a nowhere place – and Fountain Valley even more so. Hollywood is a two-hour drive north and Washington and New York City might as well be on the far side of the moon.
No one comes from Fountain Valley, but Michael Richard Pompeo did, since April 2018, Trump’s secretary of state. He was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from January 2017 until April 2018 and a congressman from Kansas 2011 to 2017, and before that, nothing much. But he’s come a long way from Los Amigos High School, almost all in the last eight years.
How’d he do that? Maybe he has that imaginary book from that 1961 musical. He does know how to succeed seemly without really trying.
He has something, as the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser reveals in her massive and detailed profile of Pompeo, Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of Trump, which opens with this:
In the winter of 2016, Donald Trump was roaring through the primaries, and Mike Pompeo was determined to stop him. Pompeo, a little-known congressman from Wichita, helped persuade Marco Rubio to make a late stand in Kansas. Like many Republicans in Congress, Pompeo believed that Rubio had the national-security knowledge and the judgment to be President, and Trump did not. Urged on by Pompeo, Rubio’s team pulled money out of other states to gamble on winning the Kansas caucus. It was one of the few remaining contests in which Rubio still hoped to beat Trump, who, he said, was a “con artist” about to “take over the Republican Party.”
On March 5th, Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, arrived in Wichita for the caucus. Rubio left his closing argument to Pompeo, who told the crowd at the Century II arena, “I’m going to speak to you from the heart about what I believe is the best path forward for America.”
An Army veteran who finished first in his class at West Point, Pompeo cited Trump’s boast that if he ordered a soldier to commit a war crime the soldier would “go do it.” As the audience booed, Pompeo warned that Trump – like Barack Obama – would be “an authoritarian President who ignored our Constitution.” American soldiers “don’t swear an allegiance to President Trump or any other President,” Pompeo declared. “They take an oath to defend our Constitution, as Kansans, as conservatives, as Republicans, as Americans. Marco Rubio will never demean our soldiers by saying that he will order them to do things that are inconsistent with our Constitution.”
Listening backstage, Trump demanded to know the identity of the congressman trashing him. A few minutes later, Pompeo concluded, “It’s time to turn down the lights on the circus.”
Pompeo’s stinging rebuke of Trump got barely a mention in the local press, and Rubio finished third in Kansas.
Pompeo was still nobody. Rubio had chosen the wrong guy, but Pompeo made adjustments:
In May, Trump secured the delegates needed for the nomination, and Pompeo reluctantly joined the rest of Kansas’s congressional delegation in endorsing him. Still, Pompeo had told the Topeka Capital-Journal in April that Trump was “not a conservative believer,” and, a few weeks later, he said, on CNN, “A lot of his policies don’t comport with my vision for how I represent Kansas.”
At that point, Pompeo had never met Trump. Like many Republicans who called Trump a “kook,” a “cancer,” and a threat to democracy before ultimately supporting him, Pompeo disagreed with much of Trump’s platform. He took issue in particular with Trump’s “America First” skepticism about the United States’ role in the world. Pompeo was a conservative internationalist who had been shaped by his Cold War-era military service, and he remained a believer in American power as the guarantor of global stability.
Yet, after Trump won the Presidency, Pompeo sought a post in his Administration and did not hesitate to serve as his CIA director. In 2018, after Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, by tweet, Pompeo happily replaced him as America’s top diplomat.
He did what it took to get ahead, having few obvious ethical scruples:
Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who keeps an open Bible on his desk, now says it’s possible that God raised-up Trump as a modern Queen Esther, the Biblical figure who convinced the King of Persia to spare the Jewish people. He defines his own job as serving the President, whatever the President asks of him. “A Secretary of State has to know what the President wants,” he said, at a recent appearance in Washington. “To the extent you get out of synch with that leader, then you’re just out shooting the breeze.”
No matter what Trump has said or done, Pompeo has stood by him. As a former senior White House official told me, “There will never be any daylight publicly between him and Trump.” The former official said that, in private, too, Pompeo is “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” Even more bluntly, a former American ambassador told me, “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”
Thirty-one months into the Administration, the relationship between Trump and Pompeo, born in derision and remade in flattery, has proved to be surprisingly durable. Trump often gushes about Pompeo, even as he has berated his hawkish national-security adviser, John Bolton, for taking similar positions. “I argue with everyone,” Trump told a reporter. “Except Pompeo.”
He was in and now he’s the president’s man:
Fifty-five, burly, and barrel-chested, Pompeo lives with his second wife, Susan, and their golden retriever, Sherman, in a rented house on the grounds of a military base across the street from the State Department. A film buff and an AC/DC fan, he seems modest and approachable in settings where he’s comfortable. When challenged, especially about the President, he gets testy and red in the face. He favors baggy gray suits and close-cropped gray hair. Trump, who often talks about whether someone “looks the part,” has made a point of calling out Pompeo’s unglamorous presence. At a recent appearance in South Korea, he summoned Pompeo to the stage with his daughter Ivanka, referring to them as “beauty and the beast.”
Pompeo shrugged. That was fine. He’d come a long way:
Pompeo’s background bears little resemblance to that of recent Secretaries of State, all of whom came to the job after long careers in public life and with extensive international experience. Pompeo, in contrast, has had a “meteoric rise,” as his friend Steve Scalise, the House Republican Whip, told me. A little more than a decade ago, he was unknown not only in Washington but also in his adopted home state, where he had just lost his first campaign, placing third in a three-way race to become chairman of the Kansas Republican Party.
Trump often touts Pompeo’s credentials as a top student at West Point and at Harvard Law School, but in six years as a member of Congress he never chaired a subcommittee or faced a genuinely competitive election, and he served just over a year at the CIA. He spent much of his career running a struggling Wichita aviation company.
But perhaps he was a diamond in the rough:
Born in 1963, Pompeo was one of three children in a working-class family in Southern California. His father, Wayne, was a Navy radioman in the Korean War. His mother, Dorothy Mercer, was one of ten children of small-town Kansas pool-hall owners. In conservative Orange County, Wayne was a passionate liberal, according to two sources who heard this from the future Secretary.
Pompeo does not speak publicly about his political disagreements with his father, but they began early on: he has said that, as a teenager, he read Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead,” and became a staunch conservative. The valedictorian of his public high school, he was nominated for West Point by his congressman, Bob Dornan, a fiery hard-right favorite of the defense industry. “That should give you a good idea of where I am coming from politically if ‘B-1 Bob’ chose me for West Point,” Pompeo told the conservative magazine Human Events, in 2011.
And then he ticked off all the boxes:
After marrying his college sweetheart, Leslie Libert, the weekend he graduated, Pompeo took a prestigious posting as a tank commander in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which patrolled the border between East and West in Germany. Five years later, with the end of the Cold War, the border was gone and Pompeo left the military, having risen to the rank of captain. He went to Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Law Review, then moved to Washington, D.C., and joined the blue-chip firm Williams & Connolly.
In the late nineties, however, Pompeo radically changed his life. He quit the law firm after two years and divorced his wife. (He kept the dog, Byron; she got the cat, Keats.) He moved to Kansas, his late mother’s home state, where, in early 1997, he and “three of my best friends in the whole world” from West Point, as he put it recently, started a company, Thayer Aerospace. Their aim was to acquire firms that manufactured specialized machinery for aviation companies clustered in Wichita, a city known as “the air capital of the world.” Pompeo became Thayer’s CEO.
That didn’t work out, so he simply moved on:
In 2010, amid the Tea Party backlash to President Obama, Pompeo made another career switch, running for an open Congress seat in the state’s Fourth District. The establishment climber from California had become a heartland evangelical.
Pompeo ran a nasty race against the Democrat, an Indian-American state legislator named Raj Goyle, who, unlike Pompeo, had grown up in Wichita. Pompeo’s campaign tweeted praise for an article calling Goyle a “turban topper,” and a supporter bought billboards urging residents to “Vote American -Vote Pompeo.”
In the heavily Republican district in a heavily Republican year, he won easily.
“Pompeo’s singular ability is in navigating power,” Goyle told me. “On that I give him massive respect, the way he mapped Wichita power, the way he mapped D.C. power, the way he mapped Trump.”
And he mapped the big money too:
In Washington, Pompeo found a way onto the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the critical panel for the business interests of his Kansas patrons. He appointed a former Koch lawyer as his chief of staff and acquired a reputation as a fierce defender of the Kochs. “Stop Harassing the Koch Brothers” was the title of an op-ed that he wrote in 2012, in which he dismissed attacks on them as “evidence of a truly Nixonian approach to politics.” Two years later, he called the Kochs “great men.” His loyalty was rewarded: according to the Center for Responsive Politics, in 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 he received more campaign funds from the Kochs’ network than any other candidate in the country.
This was the Broadway musical without all the singing and dancing, and now Pompeo works for Trump, on a mission, which Glasser finds odd:
The word “mission” was the tell. Pompeo in public often refers to the “mission set” he’s been assigned by Trump, presenting himself as a mere executor of the President’s commands. “He’s very focused on whatever the mission is. He’s a West Point guy: Trump wants a deal, so I’ll get a deal,” another of the former officials said. The official noted that Pompeo uses the language of “an Army captain, a guy who went to West Point and got out before he became a general.”
This behavior is the reason that Pompeo has succeeded in becoming the lone survivor of Trump’s original national-security team. At the start of his Administration, the President had bragged about “my generals.” But, now that he has pushed out the actual generals who served as his chief of staff, his national-security adviser, and his Defense Secretary, it seems clear that Trump was uncomfortable with such leaders, and rejected their habits of command and independent thinking.
He wanted a Mike Pompeo, not a Jim Mattis, a captain trained to follow orders, not a general used to giving them.
The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison has a few things to say about that:
It is Pompeo’s willingness to play the groveling yes-man to the president that has kept him around this long, and it is also one important reason why he constantly tells so many preposterous lies about the “successes” of Trump administration policies. He doesn’t care if he is deceiving the public or Congress as long as he is flattering Trump and making the president think that everything is going well. Pompeo’s serial lying doesn’t come up in the profile, but the profile helps explain why the lying comes so easily to him.
Larison, however, finds this appalling:
Two days later, Trump announced that Pompeo was his nominee for the CIA job. Trump seemed to know little about him, and Representative Devin Nunes, a member of Trump’s transition team, later said that he didn’t think Pompeo had even filled out a vetting questionnaire.
After the announcement, Jeff Roe, Ted Cruz’s former campaign manager, called Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and reminded him of Trump’s fury at Pompeo’s Kansas caucus speech. As Tim Alberta recounts in his book, “American Carnage,” Kushner put the call on speaker, so that Trump could hear.
“No! That was him? We’ve got to take it back,” the President-elect roared. “This is what I get for letting Pence pick everyone.”
But the appointment stood. Two weeks later, Pompeo was hanging out with Trump in Urban’s box at the Army-Navy football game.
It is typical of the shoddiness of Trump’s hiring practices that he picked an unqualified Congressman to run the CIA without even knowing who he was, but the somewhat surprising thing about this episode is that Trump didn’t end up holding Pompeo’s previous criticism against him. Pompeo evidently proved to Trump that he could be just as much of a suck-up as a he was a critic, and that is what he has done. Unfortunately for the country, that has meant having a wholly unqualified man in charge of representing the U.S. to the world because he happens to know how to stroke the president’s ego.
These things used to be a joke, sometimes an extended joke, like the 1961 hit Broadway musical, but this isn’t the World Wide Wicket Company. This man represents this nation to the world, and the Washington Post’s Aaron Blake sees this:
Trump is rewriting the rules of the presidency in precisely some of the ways Pompeo warned about. Trump has warmed to authoritarians and authoritarianism, similar to Pompeo’s warnings. Shortly before becoming Trump’s pick for CIA director, Pompeo tweeted that Trump should “make the undemocratic practice of executive orders a thing of the past;” Trump has instead taken it to new heights. The secretary of state who once assured that soldiers “don’t swear an allegiance to President Trump or any other President; they take an oath to defend our Constitution” has shown an almost-unmatched allegiance to Trump.
Some in the foreign policy establishment apparently want to believe it could all be for the best – that Pompeo can, on balance, be a force for good. But we’ve seen their hopes dashed when it comes to another man in whom they invested some wishful thinking, Attorney General William P. Barr.
Pompeo might be the other most consequential man in Trump’s Cabinet. And the narrative of his tenure is very much up in the air – and dependent upon the man he once derided as a dangerous commander in chief.
None of this is funny in real life, which led to this:
U.S. President Donald Trump once again lashed out at Anthony Scaramucci, claiming that “nobody ever heard of” the former White House communications director “until he met me.”
“Nobody ever heard of this dope until he met me. He only lasted 11 days!” Trump wrote in a nighttime Twitter post.
Yes, but he himself had named “this dope” his White House communications director so this was his mess:
Trump and Scaramucci – who was fired in 2017 after serving less than two weeks as communications director – have publicly fallen out recently.
In various news media interviews, Scaramucci suggested the Republican Party should push Trump off the 2020 presidential ticket. The president, in return, took to Twitter to discredit Scaramucci – who is founder and co-managing partner of SkyBridge Capital and a GOP donor.
In a Monday opinion piece in The Washington Post, Scaramucci wrote that he was wrong to support Trump before.
“I can no longer in good conscience support the president’s reelection,” he added.
But it’s more than that:
President Trump lashed out anew Monday at aide-turned-nemesis Anthony Scaramucci after the former White House communications director threatened to cobble together a coalition of former Cabinet officials to speak out against the president as part of an apparent bid to find an alternative Republican nominee in 2020.
Accelerating a remarkable conversion from short-lived White House insider to brash detractor, Scaramucci said in an interview Monday morning that he wants to find a “viable alternative” and is assembling a “team” of like-minded people toward that end.
“I’ve got to get some of these former Cabinet officials in unity to speak up about it. They know it’s a crisis,” he said, predicting such a coalition would go public by the fall.
That seems unlikely. That 1961 Broadway musical was about real life, everywhere in business and government. They added music and dancing to make it all quite funny. But it never was. It never will be.