President Donald Trump surprised everyone Tuesday morning (even, apparently, Rex Tillerson) with his decision to replace the secretary of state with CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
The startling turn of events comes during one of the administration’s greatest foreign policy challenges. Last week, Trump agreed, on a whim, to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by May for one-on-one talks. It was an astonishingly risky move, one that will require immense planning from a crack team.
Of course, there are several other major and minor catastrophes in need of the secretary’s attention. Russia continues to interfere in the United States and abroad, Syria’s humanitarian toll has reached calamitous proportions, Israel and Iran inch ever closer to war.
It’s hard to know exactly how Pompeo will respond to these challenges. He is more hawkish than Tillerson and strongly opposed to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. In a 2017 interview at the Aspen Institute, he suggested that Iran is responsible for the chaos in Iraq, Yemen and beyond, and that it must be stopped. (In that same interview, he said he cannot imagine a "stable Syria" with President Bashar Assad in power. He also listed the Islamic State as a major, continuing threat to the United States, and fretted about fighters’ easy access to Europe.)
Some of the best insights about Pompeo’s thinking, however, might come from his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last May, about the biggest threats facing the world. Alongside Andrew McCabe, then the FBI’s acting director, and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coates, Pompeo talked about Russia, North Korea and even Venezuela.
Here are some of the most important points he made:
- "American interests are held at risk." Pompeo has described North Korea as an existential threat to the United States. And it’s not just because of its nuclear weapons. He explained:
"We have a threat from flash points that something could spark and have a conventional war, right, wholly apart from the issues we talk about with ICBMs and nuclear. Just a well-armed adversary that our Department of Defense works hard to make sure and mitigate against those risks remain.
They - the leader continues to develop, test, attempt to verify not only in the launches that we see, many of which have failed, but learned from each one, but continue to develop software that improves day by day. This threat is very real.
We - we should not all focus simply on the ICBMs either. American interests are held at risk today by shorter-range missiles in theater. Enormous American assets."
He also praised the Chinese for the pressure they put on North Korea, but warned that even more would be needed to bring the Kim regime to its knees.
- "Yes." Breaking with Trump, Pompeo confirmed to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that Russian interference was not a one-off, but rather an ongoing threat. "This has been going on for a long time," he said. "There’s nothing new. Only the cost has been lessened, the cost of doing it."
- "The attempt to interfere in United States is not limited to Russia." In answering a question about Cuba, Pompeo warned that Cubans may try to use their deep ties to influence American foreign policy on the country.
- "The situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate." In his testimony, Pompeo warned that President Nicolás Maduro "gets more desperate by the hour" and that he might not be fully in control of his government. He cautioned, too, that the country has a range of weapons. Pompeo’s comments suggest he will take a more aggressive approach with Venezuela, a country that Trump has threatened with sanctions and military intervention.
- Trump "asks good, hard questions. Make[s] us go make sure we’re doing our work in the right way." This last quote might offer the best clues into Pompeo’s appeal to Trump. Unlike Tillerson, who allegedly called Trump a "moron," a comment he refused to take back, Pompeo went out of his way to praise his boss, saying that he met with Trump daily, that the president was very engaged in the world, and that the world welcomes him. "I’ve now taken two trips to places, and they welcome American leadership," he said. "They’re not looking for American soldiers. They’re not looking for American boots on the ground. They’re looking for American leadership around the globe, and this president has reentered that space in a way that I think will serve America’s interest very well."