White House

White House envisions making Pompeo the secretary of state within weeks, reports say

Mike Pompeo sworn in as CIA director

Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo was sworn in as CIA director on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, just an hour after the Senate confirmed him. Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath of office. (C-SPAN)
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Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo was sworn in as CIA director on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, just an hour after the Senate confirmed him. Vice President Mike Pence administered the oath of office. (C-SPAN)

The White House is preparing a plan to make Mike Pompeo the secretary of state, according to multiple reports.

The move would cap a rapid rise from Wichita congressman to CIA director to the nation’s top diplomat in potentially less than a year.

A plan under discussion calls for current secretary Rex Tillerson to be forced out and to be replaced with Pompeo, possibly within weeks, according to administration officials cited by the Associated Press, New York Times and Washington Post.

The Times said it was not immediately clear whether President Donald Trump had given final approval to the plan developed by John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff.

The plan would place Pompeo at the center of American foreign policy. Pompeo says the West faces an increasing number of threats. He has projected strong views in the past, arguing in favor of keeping open Guantanamo Bay, rejecting the idea America engaged in torture following 9/11 and making controversial comments about Muslims.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that Trump still has confidence in Tillerson. She made no mention of Pompeo at a daily briefing.

"When the president loses confidence in somebody he'll no longer be here," she said.

Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said Kelly called to deny that there was a transition plan. “He (Tillerson) remains, as I have been told, committed to doing this job,” Nauert said.

Republicans in Washington D.C. and Kansas expressed confidence Pompeo could easily step into the role of secretary if selected. The three-term congressman graduated from West Point and received a law degree from Harvard.

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. said Pompeo is "not only an unbelievable CIA director and a personal friend, but he's extremely capable. If the president is making a decision to replace the secretary of state with director Pompeo, I can't think of a better replacement."

Kelly Arnold, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party, said while Pompeo was a congressman, constituents knew exactly where he stood on foreign policy issues. He said the international connections Pompeo has forged as CIA director would help him as secretary.

"He immediately would fit right into that role," Arnold said.

State Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat, questioned Pompeo’s qualifications to serve as secretary of state. He said he is always pleased when someone from Kansas is considered for positions of great responsibility.

"But as an American, I’m very concerned that the congressman’s only real qualification is an apparent, newly found friendship with President Trump," Carmichael said.

An advocacy group raised concern over Pompeo’s past statements. Speaking in 2013 after the Boston marathon bombing, he said Islamic leaders across America had been silent in the weeks after the attacks, making them "potentially complicit."

"Rumors that Mike Pompeo is being considered for a cabinet position should concern every senator and every American who cares about religious freedom," said Scott Simpson, public advocacy director for Muslim Advocates, a group that promotes religious civil rights.

Vocal Trump ally

Pompeo has long been considered as a nominee for the nation's top diplomat. Early on during the transition, his name was mentioned for secretary of state, and Trump has always liked him, according to a former Trump adviser with knowledge of the situation but not authorized to speak publicly.

Tillerson has faced a rocky tenure as secretary of state. Staff morale at the State Department is low, driven in part by plans to cut the agency’s budget by 30 percent and trim staffing by 8 percent.

Reports of Tillerson’s frustrations with the job and the White House have circulated for months. NBC News reported in October that over the summer Tillerson called Trump a moron.

By contrast, Pompeo would offer Trump a vocal ally at the State Department. Pompeo meets with Trump almost daily to deliver an intelligence briefing.

"He is largely the human being that you see," Pompeo told a Wichita audience about Trump in early November. "He is energetic. He has instincts that are incredible, truly."

“We’ve got folks that have been staring at problems an awfully long time, and he will provide insights, thinking about things in a way that we haven’t,” Pompeo said of Trump. “He sends us back to the drawing board to do better, just in the way good leaders do. …This is a patriot of the most extraordinary level.”

John McLaughlin, a deputy director of the CIA under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said he believes Pompeo would have a smooth transition to the State Department if selected. He expressed hope that Pompeo would reverse course on Tillerson’s push to trim the agency.

"Also as the head now of a well-staffed agency, I believe and hope he would see the necessity of getting the State Dept fully staffed and resourced, something the current secretary has not seemed to understand or value – to the great detriment of American diplomacy," McLaughlin said.

‘Rapid ascent’

Pompeo, who joined Congress amid the Tea Party wave in 2010, sharply criticized President Barack Obama’s administration. He served on a House panel that investigated the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

While the committee’s report was critical of Hillary Clinton, Pompeo helped write a separate report accusing Clinton of downplaying the attack in the run-up to Obama’s reelection.

The attention he received for those efforts pales in comparison to his national prominence now.

"It’s a really rapid ascent," said Michael Smith, a political scientist at Emporia State University.

Kansas has seen politicians rise to national positions in the recent past: former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius served as Health and Human Services secretary and Dan Glickman, a Kansas congressman who became leader of the Department of Agriculture. But secretary of state is the "crown jewel" of cabinet posts, Smith said.

If Pompeo does become secretary of state, there’s a possibility that Gov. Sam Brownback may eventually work under him. Trump has nominated Brownback to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom, though the Senate has not yet voted to confirm him. The position reports to the secretary of state.

"If you went back a few years, certainly it was Brownback who was the big national figure and Pompeo was a toiling congressman," said Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University. "And the tables have turned. Brownback, of course, may be going to Washington, D.C., but it’s not going to be to the level he hoped for."

"Pompeo maybe is going to a level he never even dreamed about."

Contributing: Lindsay Wise and Lesley Clark of McClatchy DC, and the New York Times

Jonathan Shorman: 785-296-3006, @jonshorman

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