“If the Chinese Communist Party wants to demonstrate real openness, real transparency, it could easily hold press conferences like this very news conference and allow reporters to ask him anything that they would like,” he said.
But as he spoke, Pompeo looked anything but comfortable. He probably knew that as soon as he opened the floor to questions, he would be peppered with demands for his own transparency and openness regarding President Trump’s controversial decision to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.
After initially — and unusually — taking questions from foreign journalists, Pompeo was indeed asked about Linick, who is said to have been investigating the secretary of state’s role in a Saudi arms sale and his alleged use of government employees to run personal errands.
Pompeo grew defensive. He said it was “patently false” that Linick had been fired in retaliation. “It’s all crazy stuff,” he said of the allegations against him, laughing as he described them sarcastically: “Someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner.”
But the secretary also sounded bitter when he accused the office of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) of leaking information. He said he was not aware of investigations against him, and that he had answered written questions from the inspector general. (Other reports suggest he refused to be interviewed.)
Following four minutes — and two questions — of blustering, Pompeo turned and swaggered off the stage, ignoring further requests from journalists. The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, who wrote a critical profile of him last year, offered a four-word assessment on Twitter: “Pompeo will never change.”
An outsider might think that Pompeo should feel confident right now. He has survived the regular culling of Trump appointees and emerged as a dependable ally for the president, displaying a savvy handling of an infamously mercurial leader.
The coronavirus pandemic favors his hawkish view of foreign policy. China, America’s most powerful rival, faces global scrutiny of its handling of the outbreak, while international bodies such as the World Health Organization are being criticized.
Yet over the past few weeks, Pompeo’s tenure at the State Department has looked more tenuous than ever. He may be America’s top diplomat, but it is increasingly clear that he lacks both the support of America’s envoys and its closest diplomatic allies.
The firing of Linick last week brought renewed focus on his relationship with America’s diplomats, already rocky after impeachment proceedings earlier this year saw him side with Trump over ambassadors. Since Friday, numerous allegations have emerged: Pompeo and his wife Susan have been accused of having State Department political appointees walk their dog and help his mother move.
Politico reported Wednesday that the inspector general was investigating two top aides to Pompeo and had determined that they probably failed to report allegations of workplace violence. Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Washington Post this week that Linick had been investigating an emergency declaration Trump made last year to approve an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.
The “swagger” is under siege outside of Washington, too. Five months after Pompeo described the killing of Iranian commander Qassam Soleimani as part of a “restoration of deterrence,” Tehran’s harassment continues. Venezuela paraded on state television U.S. citizens captured during an outlandish coup attempt — their families say that many involved in the plot believed they had U.S. approval.
The Trump administration has failed to capitalize on global suspicions of China during the coronavirus pandemic. Pompeo promoted unproven theories that the outbreak was the result of a leak at a lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated, citing “enormous evidence” but never showing any. When key allies such as Australia balked at the theory, Pompeo amended his language.
The Trump administration looks to have also squandered its influence at the WHO. The president’s strong-arm tactics, which included refusing to appear at its annual assembly and potentially freezing all funding, could increase Beijing’s power within the body.
The United States appears isolated. One poll conducted amid the pandemic found a large decline in the number of Germans who thought their relationship with the United States was more important than their relationship with China. “It is hard to think the words of any previous American chief diplomat, a role traditionally considered supra-partisan to a degree, have carried less weight,” the Economist wrote this week.
But such sentiments may not reflect how Pompeo views his position. His actions show he is keen to make the most of his time as secretary of state, a position the former congressman from Kansas might not have been considered for in any other administration. Pompeo has been regularly hosting “billionaire CEOs, Supreme Court justices, political heavyweights and ambassadors” for unpublicized but taxpayer-funded dinners at the State Department, NBC News reported Tuesday.
And although the Wuhan lab-leak theory has little appeal internationally, it could be potent fuel ahead of a U.S. election in which China is sure to be a bitter campaign issue. Pompeo is representing the United States on the world stage. Unfortunately, he appears to be playing to a domestic audience.