Mike Pompeo, the new secretary of state, is leaning hard into the side of the job his predecessor seemed to hate the most: public relations.
Within hours of being confirmed last week, Pompeo took along several journalists on a trip to Europe and the Middle East, answering their questions in public and private, and appearing Sunday on ABC News’ “This Week.” He’s planning a town hall meeting with State Department staff soon. And he may even start tweeting.
The moves are in many ways a return to tradition for a secretary of state, a high-profile position where words are the most powerful tool. But they stand in marked contrast to the man Pompeo replaced, Rex Tillerson, whose early lack of visibility caused lingering damage to his reputation inside the Trump administration and beyond.
“It signals that, unlike Tillerson, Pompeo recognizes some of the basic things he needs to do to make the State Department relevant,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama-era State official now with the Center for a New American Security. “By itself it won’t make Pompeo an effective secretary of state. But not doing these things really hurt Tillerson.”
On Tuesday afternoon, his first full day in Foggy Bottom itself, Pompeo will deliver a speech introducing himself to the department. Staffers and journalists won’t be the only ones listening; foreign diplomats will also parse Pompeo’s words carefully.
Tillerson, too, gave a well-received speech his first full day on the job. But for months afterward, he almost seemed to have taken a vow of silence.
He refused to engage reporters, didn’t hold a town hall until three months in and had no social media presence. U.S. diplomats soon found themselves aimless, lacking guidance from Tillerson and his small coterie of advisers. Veteran NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell took to loudly asking questions of a silent Tillerson during his public appearances, videos of which went viral. The department’s daily press briefing, a decades-old tradition, was put on ice for nearly two months. Under pressure, Tillerson brought it back, but in a scaled back format. Headlines asked: “Where’s Rex?”
Tillerson puzzled a foreign policy establishment used to secretaries of state — including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry — who sought, rather than shunned, public attention. Many State Department staffers came to see Tillerson as isolated and aloof. And foreign leaders who concluded he was ineffectual and out of the loop engaged directly with the White House instead.
Tillerson greatly increased his visibility in the second half of his 14-month tenure, but the damage was done. Trump fired Tillerson in mid-March.
The difference between Tillerson and Pompeo might be explained, in part, by their respective backgrounds: Tillerson had previously been a taciturn CEO of ExxonMobil, Pompeo a pugnacious congressman from Kansas.
“His background as a congressman is a great asset in his current position,” said Brett Schaefer, a foreign policy analyst with the conservative Heritage Foundation. “He has a great deal of experience in interacting with a broad number of people and doing so in a way that is designed to listen to their concerns and respond to them.”
Pompeo has also pledged to stay in close touch with his former colleagues in Congress. Tillerson drew criticism for being slow to respond to lawmakers’ requests.
And while Tillerson showed no visible interest in social media, a person familiar with Pompeo’s situation said he is considering using Twitter.
David Wade, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State John Kerry, argued that a secretary of state's public words matter well beyond the Washington Beltway. "Externally, you’re in a race to define the American narrative against those like Russia and China which will fill in their own narrative if you’re absent," he said.
Calling Tillerson "an abysmal failure at communications both internally and externally," Wade said Pompeo "can be a good communicator, and as a politician he's more talented than his predecessor." But, he added, "all the public diplomacy in the world can’t get him out from under the weight of Trump’s tweets and slurs about people from the Middle East to Africa."
The timing of Pompeo’s Thursday confirmation vote allowed him to attend a long-scheduled meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels the next day, winning him early plaudits from others in the military alliance.
“He actually jumped on a plane just after he was sworn in and he was able to address the North Atlantic Council, the foreign ministers of NATO, just 12 hours and 34 minutes after his confirmation,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said with admiration.
Pompeo left Washington with six journalists on his plane. On his first major overseas trip, Tillerson brought just one reporter, from the conservative Independent Journal Review.
As he continued from Brussels to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan over the weekend, Pompeo picked up two more reporters. He spoke to the reporters on the plane and also took questions during press conferences on the ground.
Tillerson, by contrast, generally avoided even the reporters who — having been denied seats on his official plane — chased him around the world on commercial flights.
Shortly after he took office, Tillerson took a quick trip to Bonn, Germany, for a meeting of G-20 foreign ministers. At an appearance on the sidelines with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, reporters were escorted out of the room before Tillerson gave remarks. Even Lavrov was puzzled: “Why did they shush them out?” he asked.
“I’m not a big media press access person. I personally don’t need it,” Tillerson would later tell the IJR reporter, who traveled with him to Asia a month later.
During his 15 months as CIA director, Pompeo forged a much closer relationship with Trump than Tillerson. He is believed to have a much better sense of where the president stands, and his own, often-hawkish views appear more in line with Trump’s thinking. Pompeo has also been vocal about wanting to improve morale at the State Department, where many diplomats have been distressed over Trump’s attempts to slash their budget and Tillerson’s unwillingness to listen to their expertise.
In a press conference in Brussels, Pompeo pointed out that he’d met with U.S. diplomats who work in the Belgian capital and that he was committed to making his department more relevant.
The diplomats, he said, “may have been demoralized, but they seemed in good spirits. They are hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back.”