As news of Donald Trump’s upset victory flashed across the TV screen in front of him in November 2016, Mike Pompeo watched in astonishment.
“This is crazy. I might actually get my dream job,” Pompeo quipped, according to two sources familiar with his comments.
That “dream job,” he joked, was deputy director of the CIA: It would put him in a top US intelligence community post without first having to undergo a grueling Senate confirmation. The reality was that Pompeo knew Trump’s stunning victory could very well propel him to the director’s office at Langley – and within months it would do just that.
Now, just over 14 months into Trump’s presidency, the former three-term Kansas congressman is continuing his meteoric rise, preparing to step into the role of America’s top diplomat after Trump tapped him for the post on Tuesday. But unlike his beleaguered predecessor, Rex Tillerson, Pompeo is expected to wield broad influence with the President from his State Department perch, having built one of the closest relationships Trump maintains with any member of his Cabinet.
“Mike Pompeo … is probably one of the most trusted inner-circle members of the current Cabinet,” said Republican Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, one of Trump’s closest allies in Congress and a former colleague of Pompeo’s. “They talk on a daily basis. The briefings the President gets from the CIA are given by Director Pompeo. … He’s trusted and he can speak frankly.”
That trust will be critical as Trump embarks on the most significant diplomatic gambit of his presidency to date – direct talks with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un – and a host of other pernicious foreign policy issues, such as an upcoming deadline to renegotiate the Iranian nuclear deal.
An early rapport
The bond was forged early on, sources close to the two men said. Trump felt no need to interview additional candidates for the CIA director post after meeting with Pompeo. Long enamored with prestigious credentials, Trump immediately thought highly of Pompeo, who graduated first in his class at West Point military academy and attended Harvard Law. And the two men had similarly direct styles of speaking.
“I knew as soon as he walked in and looked at Trump, the deal was closed,” one source close to Trump said. “He and Trump bonded from day one.”
That obvious chemistry between the two men quickly came to mind for top White House aides after Trump emerged dissatisfied with his first intelligence briefing in office, a source familiar with the matter said.
The next day, Pompeo shuttled to the White House and delivered the briefing in person. It worked, and the routine has stuck ever since, with Pompeo trekking to the White House to deliver the President his daily intelligence briefing nearly every day.
“Everybody consumes information in different ways, and the way Donald Trump likes to consume information – Mike Pompeo knows how to deliver it that way,” a senior White House official explained. “Pompeo has built a rapport with him through months and months of doing that.”
One former Pompeo aide attributed the success to Pompeo’s keen ability to distill complex issues and convey them clearly and directly, without dumbing them down.
But the daily briefings were just the entry point for Pompeo, whom the President would often ask to stick around after the briefing, even when Trump was preparing to hold meetings unrelated to intelligence topics.
It was in some of those post-briefing chats that Trump would pick his CIA director’s brain for advice on the health care debate roiling Capitol Hill, peppering the conservative former congressman with questions about the political fault lines in the House and various members.
“He was very involved in all the political discussions on the health care debate,” a friend of Pompeo’s said. “He spent a lot of time at the White House.”
Foreign policy kinship
Their ideological kinship on foreign policy issues also quickly became apparent. With Pompeo at the helm, the CIA has been a key element of the administration’s aggressive push to defeat ISIS. And Pompeo has also long been known for his hawkish position on Iran, which will be critical as the May deadline nears, by which Trump has threatened to pull out of the nuclear deal unless changes are made.
“I’ve worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength,” Trump said Tuesday. “The relationship has always been very good and that’s what I need as secretary of state. We have a very good relationship. For whatever reason, chemistry, whatever it is. Why do people get along? I’ve always – right from the beginning, from day one, I’ve gotten along well with Mike Pompeo.”
But it’s not just Pompeo’s bond with the President that has helped land him the top State Department job. He also forged close ties to Vice President Mike Pence, dating back to the hours he spent with him in preparation for the vice presidential debate.
Alongside Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Pompeo issued a supplemental report that torqued the Republican-led House Benghazi committee’s criticisms of Hillary Clinton up another notch, and Pompeo sat with Pence to brief him on the issue and other foreign policy matters.
“Pompeo was fantastic. He just knew his stuff,” a former top Pence aide said.
If confirmed, Pompeo will also bring his political experience to the State Department, succeeding a former CEO with little experience playing Washington hardball.
Already as CIA director, Pompeo took on an uncharacteristically high-profile role as a presidential surrogate on TV, frequently taking to the Sunday shows to defend the President.
The role highlighted the fine line Pompeo has had to straddle as a political appointee helming the most recognizable intelligence agency in an era in which the President has repeatedly maligned the US intelligence community. And it landed Pompeo in hot water last fall when he said – hawking the President’s own view – that the US intelligence community had assessed “that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election,” when in fact the US intelligence community had not assessed the impact of that interference on the vote tallies.
Pressed about the issue on Sunday, Pompeo toed the intelligence community’s official line.
“The intelligence community has been clear that’s not our role to discuss that,” he said of the effect of Russia’s actions on the outcome of the presidential election.
But mindful of his role as presidential defender, Pompeo added: “But there’s not been a single indication that any vote was changed.”