LONDON — It was a jam-packed trip. Back-to-back speeches, press conferences, interviews and closed-door meetings with foreign leaders. In a word, it was exhausting, as it always is with Mike Pompeo — a man with a reputation for not needing much sleep.
But then something unexpected happened. Suddenly, America’s 70th secretary of state walked out onto the sun-drenched cobblestones of Bern, Switzerland, sporting a pair of black sunglasses and standing beneath the city’s famed 15th century clock tower, a clock that would, at the dawn of the 20th century, inspire a young patent clerk who worked nearby named Albert Einstein.
A big smile washed over Mr. Pompeo’s face as he looked up at the clock. His wife, Susan, was by his side and she smiled, too — having scored a small victory of having gotten her very famous and very busy husband to slow down for just a few minutes and take it all in.
“I encourage him to put the brakes on a little bit if I’m there, you know?” Mrs. Pompeo said in an interview with The Washington Times, offering a rare inside look at the impact her presence as a partner can have on the secretary of state — a presence that has, at times, come under scrutiny in the press.
“Let’s have him see a little bit more while he’s there,” she said in London as the couple closed out a weeklong visit to Europe. “I think he’ll smell a rose or two, maybe, if I’m along.”
Her comments fit the common perceptions among observers of the diplomatic couple. “She’s on the trip, that means he’ll be nicer than usual,” is a common refrain among reporters who travel with Mr. Pompeo.
But in the interview, Mrs. Pompeo revealed another facet of her role. She has made it her mission to ease the difficult transition faced by rank-and-file American diplomats. They shape their careers and organize their family lives around their service to the State Department, often in multiyear postings to far-flung corners of the world.
Mrs. Pompeo explained that while her husband is holding talks with foreign leaders, she’s running from meeting to meeting with the spouses and offspring of Foreign Service officers to “make sure their families are happy.”
“It might be a partner, it might be a spouse — in this morning’s meeting, we had a grandma, which I love,” Mrs. Pompeo said in London.
She wants the details.
“Is your housing OK? Are you happy with the schools that your children are in? How hard was it to get your dog here? It’s always much easier to get kids anywhere than dogs,” she noted with a laugh.
Mrs. Pompeo has, over the past year, emerged as a major player in internal State Department family wellness initiatives. She has taken cues from Stephanie Glakas-Tenet and Jeanine Carrier-Hayden, the wives of former CIA directors who built up family initiatives at the CIA when their husbands headed the agency — a post Mr. Pompeo, 55, also held before becoming secretary of state last year.
When she joins him on his current foreign trips, Mrs. Pompeo meets the community liaison officer at U.S. embassies, known in diplo-speak as the “CLO.” She also meets with regional security officers and, if there is time, will have a roundtable with career diplomats who are single.
“We can’t ignore that group,” she said.
She has a pivotal question for all of them: “Do you feel safe?’”
“I view that as a bedrock thing, wherever they are, they need to feel safe,” Mrs. Pompeo said. “I ask them what resources they use, how do they find out about that next post?”
The answers can open up a behind-the-scenes back-channel directly to the secretary of state, a back-channel that Mrs. Pompeo says she has tried to facilitate on three overseas trips she has made with her husband this year.
The trips have drawn some media attention, but not for reasons she had hoped.
CNN cited diplomatic sources lamenting that Mrs. Pompeo’s presence on one Mideast trip meant State Department staffers were required to prepare and support her, despite having their pay frozen at the time by a government shutdown in Washington.
Mrs. Pompeo says she can take criticism. She was in business on her own for a long time before her husband became America’s top diplomat. She was vice president of a bank. She’s from Kansas.
She wants Foreign Service officers to be honest with her.
“They’re not going to offend me. They’re sure not going to offend Mike,” she said. When she meets with officials oversees, “they’re pretty out with it, but always really warm and they seem very appreciative.”
Her husband, Mrs. Pompeo said, “knows that to continue to recruit and have all these thousands of Foreign Service folks representing America around the world … we have to make sure their families are happy,” she said. “At least the best that we can.”
If there’s something else people should know about the secretary of state, she said, it’s the separation anxiety Mr. Pompeo feels while traveling the globe for his 4-year-old, 105-pound golden retriever Sherman, named for the famed Union Army general.
“He misses Sherman,” Mrs. Pompeo said, “always.”