How Mike Pompeo Went From Kansas Businessman To Secretary Of State And Key Player In An Impeachment Inquiry

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media in the briefing room at the State Department. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media in the briefing room at the State Department. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Since a whistleblower complaint first launched an impeachment saga, President Trump’s secretary of state has had his back.

Mike Pompeo, former businessman and Tea Party congressman, has held the party line, even as witness testimony and publicly-released State Department documents draw him further into the investigation over a hold on $391 million in security assistance to Ukraine.

In early October, Pompeo publicly admitted that he was on the July 25 call where Trump asked Ukranian President Volodmyr Zelenskiy to undertake political investigations that would benefit Trump’s reelection campaign. Then last week, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified before Congress that everyone "was in the loop" when it came to connections between the investigations Trump wanted and security assistance to Ukraine, including Secretary Pompeo.

Meanwhile, State Department files show two phone calls between Pompeo and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in the weeks before U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was removed from her post, which appear to underscore Sondland’s testimony.

In public appearances, Pompeo has fiercely defended the president and has not pushed back on narratives that his own State Department has called false. At a news conference on Tuesday, he said the U.S. should investigate a conspiracy theory — debunked by U.S. intelligence services — that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democratic National Committee's computer server in 2016.

"Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right, but a duty, to make sure we chase that down," he said when asked whether the U.S. and Ukraine should launch a probe into the matter.

Pompeo has also stonewalled the impeachment investigation in Congress, prohibiting State Department employees from testifying and refusing to turn over documents.

But how did a Kansas businessman become embroiled in the fourth presidential impeachment inquiry in U.S. history? His path to the top of the State Department cut through the world of the megadonor Koch brothers, bitter hearings over the death of an ambassador in Benghazi, and the highest level of the Central Intelligence Agency.

From West Point To Washington

A native of southern California, Pompeo graduated first in his class from the United States Military Academy at West Point and went into the military, where his service as a tank officer took him to Germany at the end of the Cold War.

After leaving the military, he studied at Harvard Law School, though he cut short his career as a corporate lawyer and went into business in Kansas alongside a few West Point friends – including Ulrich Brechbuhl, who would become a top counselor in Pompeo’s State Department, and another impeachment witness defying subpoenas from House Democrats.

Pompeo’s business ventures in aircraft and oilfield equipment manufacturing tied him to conservative donors Charles and David Koch, who would help fund his political career.

He first ran for Congress in Kansas as the 2010 Republican nominee and Tea Party candidate, riding a wave of anti-Obama sentiment to victory. For the next three elections he held onto the seat easily, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from Koch Industries, contributions that Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal pointed to when he called Pompeo “a poster boy for the impact of money in politics.”

Pompeo was, in some ways, also a poster boy for partisanship. The Benghazi hearings, which investigated the death of a U.S. ambassador and three security personnel in Libya, gave him a chance to doggedly attack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“Why didn't you fire someone?” he asked her in a 2016 hearing. “How come not a single person lost a single paycheck connected to the fact that we had the first ambassador killed since 1979?”

Those attacks extended to the entire Obama administration, which he pushed to cooperate with the committee, demanding documents and testimony — a call for transparency that critics have been quick to point out as he blocks his own employees from appearing before Congress.

Rising In The Trump Administration 

In 2016, he hitched his White House ambitions on Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio. A fierce critic of candidate Donald Trump, Pompeo warned that Trump would become an “authoritarian” who ignored the Constitution, and famously said of the campaign, “It's time to turn down the lights on the circus.”

But he changed his tune as Trump’s star rose. With the help of two Republicans in Congress –– Kansas Senator Pat Roberts and California Representative Devin Nunes – he became the president’s choice for C.I.A director in late 2016. He began to meet the president for daily intelligence briefings and both men described their relationship as strong from the outset.

Then just over a year after taking office, Trump tapped Pompeo to be the 70th Secretary of State.

“Mike has also earned my deepest respect and admiration and trust,” Trump said when he swore in Pompeo. “And you'll see why over the coming years, probably over the coming months.”

Supporters accurately predicted that Pompeo would be a better fit for the job than the outgoing secretary, Rex Tillerson, who had clashed with the president.

Under Tillerson, the department had seen a hiring freeze and a dip in morale. Pompeo focused on rebuilding the department and raising up career staffers — including naming diplomat Michael McKinley as one of his senior advisers. His close ties to the president also meant that he would have more credibility when he spoke with foreign officials. In a sense, the State Department was back in the game.

Stonewalling The Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry

Then events began to play out in Ukraine that would eventually be detailed to Congress and the public as part of the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

In his defense of the president’s actions in Ukraine, Pompeo has veered away from the consensus among American intelligence. As C.I.A director, Pompeo stood by the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was responsible for interference in the 2016 presidential election. But he’s since expressed support for debunked claims about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election — as he did on Tuesday — and even alluded to unsubstantiated allegations of corruption by former Vice President Joe Biden.

“I couldn’t answer if it’s because of Hunter Biden that Barack Obama and Vice President Biden didn’t give defensive weapons systems to Ukraine,” he told Fox News in October. “Maybe I just don’t have the full story.”

And Pompeo’s support for career officials has appeared not to extend to some of those involved in the Ukraine affair.

When Yovanovitch faced a smear campaign led by Giuliani this spring, Pompeo agreed to end her tenure early and spurned requests to defend her in public, according to witnesses. His adviser McKinley resigned in October, in part over what he called Pompeo's willingness to sell out a career diplomat. Pompeo has also refused to say whether he has confidence in acting Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor.

“I think morale is very low at this point at the State Department,” former State Department official Dan Feldman told NPR’s All Things Considered. “And they're quite demoralized, and what they want to see more than anything else is their senior leadership stand up and defend them.”

Pompeo dismissed reports about low morale to Politico as “more Washington insider stuff.” He also criticized how Democrats have handled impeachment proceedings.

“I regret it for the American people that we haven’t had a process that has allowed an inquiry to proceed in a way that’s fair and equitable and gets to the facts in an appropriate way to the American people,” he told Politico.

Meanwhile, reports have suggested that the secretary is considering leaving the administration to run for the Senate in Kansas. The president denied those reports on a Fox & Friends appearance but appeared to give the go-ahead nonetheless.

“Mike would win easily in Kansas, great state, and it’s a Trump state,” he said. “He loves what he’s doing… [but] he came to me and said look, ‘I’d rather stay where I am,’ but he loves Kansas, he loves the people of Kansas. If he thought there was a chance of losing that seat, I think he would do that. And he would win in a landslide.”

Francesca Paris produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Paris also adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on November 28, 2019.


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