BERN, Switzerland — It’s a famous story that Henry Kissinger once faked a bad stomach ache while visiting Pakistan in order to shed the prying eyes of the press for long enough to make a secret side trip to China that ultimately teed up President Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking 1972 visit to Beijing.
State Department officials say no such theatrics or sleight-of-hand are at play with regard to current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Switzerland at the moment.
However, Mr. Pompeo did set rumors ablaze Saturday by slipping away from reporters to make a quick — not on the public schedule — jaunt to the southern Swiss city of Montreux, where officials said he would speak at a notoriously elusive gathering of global elites that’s also being attended by President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Montreux is where a lakeside resort will play host this year to the highly secretive annual Bilderberg conference, a major off-the-record meeting that’s well known in conspiracy lore but typically given little to no media attention, despite the dozens of billionaire bankers, leading business people, royalty and other movers and shakers that show up each year.
The infamous gathering got its name from the first meeting in 1954 at the Bilderberg hotel in the Netherlands is often held in different locales on different years. It is known for being inaccessible to the masses, let alone the media. A security perimeter of about a half-mile was set up around a Northern Virginia hotel that hosted Bilderberg back in 2012. A photographer for The Washington Times was told by law enforcement at the time that any attempt to get close would result in arrest.
Press coverage in more recent years — driven largely by conspiratorial American radio host Alex Jones, among others — is said to have led organizers to thicken the protective shell around the conference to new heights. Mr. Jones’ website InfoWars has claimed “multiple journalists were detained in a Swiss airport after filming Bilderberg participants arriving on the first day of the gathering.”
Infowars also described Bilderberg as an event of “globalist king-makers” and argued that “in recent years, both Brexit and Trump and the effort to derail both has been among the primary focus of discussion amongst panicked globalists in attendance.”
This all raises the question of why several top Trump administration officials are attending this year. State Department officials are tight-lipped about what Mr. Pompeo would speak on at the event, but said he was attending for just one session.
A Bilderberg website listed a range of “key topics. A “stable strategic order,” China, Russia, climate change, the “future of capitalism,” the “importance of space” and more are on the list. The site said the 67-year-old annual gathering’s roots stem from decades-old concern that “Western Europe and North America were not working together as closely as they should on issues of common interest.”
Frequent attendees include Mr. Kissinger, David Rockefeller and others. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, former World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick and Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands are all reported to have gone before. The website for this year has a partial list of participants. In addition to Mr. Kushner, key Trump administration National Security Council adviser on North Korea Matthew Pottinger is on the list. So is National Security Council Director for China Matthew Turpin.
Former CIA Director David H. Petraeus is also on the list and, despite the general inaccessibility for press, a handful of journalists are on it too, including Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait and Washington Post Columnist Megan McArdle.
After arriving in Zurich from Berlin on Friday, Mr. Pompeo was whisked by helicopter to the bucolic hillside Swiss city of Bern.
He toured Bern’s sun-drenched cobblestone streets Saturday morning with his wife Susan, stopping at the city’s famed 15th century clock tower, which is said to have once inspired Albert Einstein, when he worked here in the early 1900s as a patent office inspector.
State Department officials declined to comment on how Mr. Pompeo would travel to Montreux on Saturday, but said he would not be spending the night. He is slated to meet Sunday in the Swiss alpine town of Bellinzona with Switzerland’s Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis.
The three-night stay in Switzerland, along with the Bilderberg side trip, has triggered rumors Mr. Pompeo is pushing secretive meetings related to Iran, since Switzerland represents America’s interests in Tehran, where there is no U.S. diplomatic footprint.
Sources close to the secretary of state have pushed back against the rumors.
But transatlantic disagreement over Iran has already weighed on Mr. Pompeo’s week-long visit to Europe, most notably over the administration’s withdrawal of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal. The trip, to conclude Tuesday when Mr. Pompeo joins Mr. Trump on a visit to Britain, is seen to be part of a larger U.S. attempt to tamp down European fears of a military escalation with Iran.
Switzerland has been essential in the past as an intermediary between Washington and Tehran. Montreux, itself, factored heavily in the former Obama administration’s pursuit of the 2015 nuclear deal. Former Secretary of State John Kerry held talks there with Iranian officials.
At the same time, Switzerland also has key significance to other Trump administration foreign policy focal points. In April, Switzerland agreed to begin representing U.S. interests in Venezuela. It has also has a role on North Korea. While Sweden is the U.S. protecting power in Pyongyang, Switzerland has offered to help mediate talks and was reported to have been considered as a location for the February summit between Mr. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that ultimately took place in Vietnam.
Mr. Pompeo smiled when asked at the start of his trip whether there was any deep reasoning behind his decision to make a multiple-day visit to Switzerland. “Big cheese and chocolate fan,” he responded, drawing laughs from reporters traveling with him.
Will Iran issues come up in meetings in Switzerland? “I’m sure they will,” the secretary of state said. “I mean, they’re our protecting power. They have conversations with lots of countries around the …”
He paused, then added: “I’m sure that topic will come up.”