Having secured his own job as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo faces a tough new question: Who can he get to work for him?
Pompeo has inherited an unusual number of vacancies at Foggy Bottom and U.S. embassies and has promised to fill them quickly. Some names are already circulating for the more than 70 positions now open. But, like his ousted predecessor, Rex Tillerson, Pompeo faces major obstacles.
One is that the White House has blackballed dozens of Republican foreign affairs experts who signed “Never Trump” letters in 2016 or who otherwise criticized President Donald Trump.
Many other conservatives may simply not wish to join the administration or are unqualified for the available positions. The Foreign Service also is pressing Pompeo to choose career diplomats whenever possible, especially for sensitive ambassadorships.
Combine those factors with a slow-grinding Senate confirmation process, and it could be another year before Pompeo’s department is fully staffed — leaving voids in U.S. diplomatic leadership at a time of tumult in the Middle East, Europe and beyond.
“In this administration, the president has second-guessed his personnel folks and they have, as a result, become very cautious,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president at the American Enterprise Institute. As a Cabinet member, Pompeo “needs in each case of an appointment to decide: Is this the battle I’m going to pick with the White House? Or will it be over China? Or Iran? Or some other priority?”
But Pompeo has one advantage: a strong personal relationship with Trump. That means that he might be able to sneak through some hires that his predecessor never could. That might even include the so-called Never Trumpers—maybe “not right out of the gates, but eventually,” suggested Julie Smith of the Center for a New American Security, who is familiar with some of Pompeo’s early outreach to Foreign Service veterans.
On Thursday, the State Department announced that Ulrich Brechbuhl, a business executive and former classmate of Pompeo’s at West Point, will join the department as its new counselor. The State Department counselor acts as a senior adviser on a range of issues to the secretary. Brechbuhl’s duties will include helping Pompeo hire staff.
Among the open State positions: undersecretaries for political affairs and public diplomacy and the assistant secretaries for South Asia and Africa. A slew of ambassadorships also sit empty, including ones for Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Before his firing by Trump, Tillerson managed to win White House approval for several nominees who are still awaiting confirmation. Pompeo may adopt some of those Tillerson-era choices, but not all: One nominee expected to be pulled is Susan Thornton, Tillerson’s choice for assistant secretary for East Asia. Thornton’s appointment was originally resisted by former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who considered her too soft on China. Tillerson won approval for her after Bannon’s departure from the White House.
Now, however, the longtime diplomat has run into renewed opposition from some White House officials, as well as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, over her views toward Beijing.
Pompeo, who spent the past 15 months as Trump’s CIA chief, has sent several comforting signals to Foreign and Civil Service officers now in his employ.
When he flew to Europe and the Middle East within hours of his confirmation last week, he arrived without outside advisers or aides from past jobs, according to a person familiar with the situation. Instead, he entrusted current State Department officials to brief him and handle the logistics.
It was a striking contrast with Tillerson, whose small circle of aides, including his chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, sharply restricted his interactions with career staffers from the start of his 14-month tenure, dismaying U.S. diplomats.
On Tuesday, his first full day at the department’s headquarters, Pompeo said he will allow embassies to resume hiring employees overseas including via the department’s “eligible family member” program. The program helps match qualified spouses of U.S. diplomats living overseas with needed positions at embassies. Tillerson’s decision to freeze it spurred tremendous resentment.
Pompeo also has repeatedly praised the 75,000 people who work for the State Department, calling them “patriots” and insisting that they need “to be in every corner, every stretch of the world.”
State Department officials told POLITICO that, while they appreciate Pompeo’s early gestures, a more important test is whether he quickly announces the nominations of career Foreign Service officers to some key slots, including assistant secretary positions, ambassadorships, and the department’s human resources chief.
“It would be a very real signal that he trusts and welcomes the input from the leadership of the career service,” a longtime Foreign Service member said.
Pompeo learned months ago that Trump would tap him to replace Tillerson and has reportedly been mulling potential hires ever since. Some prominent names circulating thanks to press reports or word-of-mouth in foreign policy circles include Paula Dobriansky, Juan Zarate and Jim Richardson.
Dobriansky, who served at State in the George W. Bush administration, is reported to be under consideration to be Pompeo’s undersecretary of state for political affairs. But she was also floated as a possible choice for the job under Tillerson, which some sources said could be strike against her. Dobriansky did not reply to a request for comment.
Zarate, who held senior national security posts in the Bush years and now chairs the Financial Integrity Network, helped advise Pompeo as he transitioned both to the CIA and to the State Department. He declined comment.
Richardson is now a senior adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development, but he served as a chief of staff and campaign manager for Pompeo when he was in Congress. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Tillerson was slow to fill positions in part because he’d hoped to reorganize the State Department and shed thousands of jobs to meet reduced budget goals set by Trump. But his choices were repeatedly rejected by a White House obsessed with loyalty. Trump nixed Tillerson’s first choice for deputy secretary of state, Elliott Abrams, after learning that Abrams had criticized him in the past.
More recently, Trump reportedly vetoed Vice President Mike Pence’s choice of Jon Lerner to be his top national security aide after being informed that Lerner, a veteran GOP campaign strategist, had advised sharply anti-Trump groups such as the Club for Growth during the 2016 campaign. Lerner, who serves as a deputy to U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, withdrew from the Pence role.
If Pompeo were to try to bring on GOP critics of Trump, he “needs to argue to the president that some people are terrible ‘Never Trumpers’ but others just supported other candidates so they naturally attacked him just as he very strongly attacked his opponent,” a Republican former government official said.
“The key difference is probably what people have said since he got elected: If they have stayed critical, the hell with them. If they have been supportive for a year and a half, they should be forgiven, because Pompeo needs some of them to take control of State back from the awful, horrible State bureaucracy.”
Many members of that bureaucracy are especially keen to see Pompeo oust one member of Tillerson’s inner circle who remains at State: Brian Hook, the director of the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff.
Policy Planning has traditionally served as an in-house think tank of sorts, focusing on medium to long-term strategy. But under Hook, who also served in the Bush administration, the division has taken over many day-to-day functions that have traditionally been the purview of regional bureaus. Hook, whose current position doesn’t require Senate confirmation, is leading talks with European allies on the future of the Iran nuclear deal. He also was among the State officials who traveled overseas with Pompeo this past weekend.
Hook’s future remains uncertain. Pompeo may keep him on for continuity’s sake, as well as the fact that Hook has a good relationship with White House officials. Some observers believe Pompeo might move Hook to an ambassadorship or other role that requires Senate approval. But he could meet opposition from senators, especially on the Democratic side, who have been troubled by his accumulation of power as head of Policy Planning.