MANILA, Philippines — America’s top diplomat swept through the grandiose lobby of the famed Peninsula Hotel with purpose early on a recent morning.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo couldn’t have slept much since arriving late the night before, but he had a bounce in his step as a clutch of reporters attempted to follow him into a small room where top Philippine business leaders were waiting to have breakfast with him.
Cameras flashed and elbows jostled among the journalists craning for a glimpse of who was in the room as the secretary took his seat. Then came an awkward silence before Mr. Pompeo suddenly waved a hand toward the reporters and said, “I’ll wait for these nice people to leave before we get started.”
The comment delighted the assembled business leaders, whose nervous laughter offered a rare glimpse into a behind-the-scenes world where sources close to Mr. Pompeo say he is most comfortable and effective — a world where he has carved out a reputation for frank talks with foreign counterparts, especially capitalists.
In an administration that even close allies such as the Philippines have trouble assessing, Mr. Pompeo’s clout and evident camaraderie with his boss, President Trump, have made him a reassuring and consequential figure. He is the one heavyweight other than Vice President Mike Pence who has held top-level Cabinet status for Mr. Trump’s entire presidency.
Mr. Pompeo has been carving out this eminence for himself since Mr. Trump tapped him two months before the presidential inauguration to lead the CIA. He served at the agency for a year and a half before taking over as secretary of state. But the insider role comes with built-in turbulence as the administration struggles in its third year to gain momentum amid internal power struggles, messy departures and even questions about the extent of influence Mr. Pompeo exerts over Mr. Trump’s eccentric, china-breaking foreign policy.
Holding a position of prominence under Mr. Trump has meant lining up — at times literally — behind an unorthodox president at the hottest moments, when the cameras are on and scrutiny is most intense over who is really calling the shots. That was the case last month, the day before Mr. Pompeo flew to Manila from Hanoi, where he stood behind Mr. Trump at a press conference as the president announced that his nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had ended abruptly with no deal, cutting short two days of talks and leaving the two sides with an uncertain path ahead.
It was a delicate moment for Mr. Pompeo, who has invested more personal capital into the North Korea talks than perhaps any other administration official, having made several visits to Pyongyang over the past two years. Although the secretary of state strongly felt the need for patience and deeper, working-level talks with the North Koreans, he didn’t skip a beat in backing up Mr. Trump over his decision to walk away from the table with Mr. Kim when the talks hit a snag.
“I wish we could have gotten a little bit further,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters when Mr. Trump asked him to speak at the Hanoi press conference. “But I’m very optimistic [about] the progress that we made, both in the run-up to this summit as well as the progress that the two leaders made over these past two days.”
Trump’s go-to man
Mr. Pompeo’s image as the president’s trusted confidant on issues ranging far beyond North Korea was bolstered by the aftermath of the disappointing Hanoi summit.
With the dust still settling from the Kim summit, the secretary of state was dispatched to Manila for a breakneck round of meetings, including with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. He was then back in the U.S., where Mr. Trump dispatched him to Iowa for a speech that was widely seen as an opening salvo in a key battleground state for the president’s 2020 re-election campaign.
Less than four days after he shared the stage with Mr. Trump in Hanoi, Mr. Pompeo made headlines by appealing to farmers to stand firm with the president in a trade war with China that put Iowa’s agricultural exports in the crossfire.
Iowa farmers reportedly could lose more than $2 billion as a result of increased tariffs tied to Mr. Trump’s negotiations with Beijing, but Mr. Pompeo reminded them that the president “is fighting to level the playing field” against Chinese “protectionism [that] has for decades tilted the field against our farmers and agricultural companies.”
State Department spokesman Robert J. Palladino said the speeches, and a series of interviews that Mr. Pompeo gave to local media outlets in Iowa, were just part of how the secretary of state sees his role.
“[His] No. 1 mission is to serve the American people as the nation’s top diplomat. American diplomacy around the globe protects U.S. citizens, bolsters our national security and creates new opportunities for American businesses,” Mr. Palladino said. “That’s a message that every single American deserves to hear.”
Aspirations beyond Trump
Amid his sprint of grip-and-grin meetings, speeches and travel from Vietnam to the American heartland, Mr. Pompeo also found time for high-stakes telephone diplomacy with leaders in India and Pakistan to try to ease soaring tensions between the two nuclear-armed nations over the divided Kashmir province.
If nothing else, the frenetic period revealed Mr. Pompeo’s critical role in the Trump administration — and the deep hole that would be left should he bow out anytime soon.
It is widely whispered that the 55-year-old Mr. Pompeo, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and Harvard Business School who ran a successful business before winning a House seat in his native Kansas, has political aspirations after his tenure at Foggy Bottom.
For now, however, the secretary appears content with his role and his ability to influence Mr. Trump’s foreign policy. One source said that “Pompeo intends to jump ship before it sinks” should Mr. Trump’s re-election chances fade, but Mr. Pompeo shot down reports that he was weighing a 2020 run for the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican.
Questions still swirl over the extent of Mr. Pompeo’s patience with Mr. Trump’s mercurial management style that ended the tenures of Rex W. Tillerson, Mr. Pompeo’s predecessor at the State Department, and Defense Secretary James Mattis, who resigned in December over disagreement with the president’s abrupt announcement to remove all U.S. forces from Syria.
Personnel problems also plague the State Department despite Mr. Pompeo’s vow to revive its “swagger” after Mr. Tillerson’s often demoralizing time in office. Mr. Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget, released last week, called again for sharp cuts in State Department and foreign aid funding.
Heather Nauert, Mr. Pompeo’s chief spokeswoman, suddenly withdrew herself from consideration to be ambassador to the United Nations. The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service reported at the end of last year that barely half of the State Department’s 198 “key positions” had been filled and that 29 did not even have a nominee. Only five of the Cabinet’s 16 departments have had a worse record in filling slots, the watchdog group said.
‘All or nothing’
Still, the mood at Foggy Bottom has felt brighter in recent months. Few doubt the heavy workload Mr. Pompeo has taken on as secretary, but questions linger about his influence over Mr. Trump.
In the wake of the Hanoi summit, a sharp debate erupted over whether the president had simply dumped Mr. Pompeo’s patient, working-level negotiations approach in favor of an all-or-nothing strategy sought by National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, the administration’s top hard-liner who angered Pyongyang by suggesting last year a “Libya style” deal to immediately end the North’s nuclear and missile programs.
“That seems to be the speculation,” said Ambassador Joseph Yun, who served more than a year under Mr. Trump as special envoy to North Korea, when asked whether Mr. Bolton’s approach won out in Hanoi.
Mr. Yun said he is not privy to the administration’s internal policy disputes but that Mr. Bolton appeared to have Mr. Trump’s ear heading into Hanoi, with Mr. Pompeo and the State Department’s special envoy for the North Korean talks, Stephen Biegun, stuck on the periphery.
Leading up to the summit, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Biegun, backed at times by Mr. Trump, seemed open to the idea of some form of “peace declaration” with the North Koreans in exchange for progress short of immediate and full denuclearization on the security front.
Mr. Pompeo for months had pushed the message that the nuclear side of negotiations “was going to be a lengthy process” that could take significant time. “We are prepared to be patient,” he said in an interview in November with KFDI, a local news radio station in Kansas.
Frank Aum, a former senior Pentagon adviser now at the U.S. Institute of Peace, noted that for all Mr. Pompeo’s talk of a negotiated step-by-step process, Mr. Trump’s policy now “really seems to be an all-or-nothing approach.”
Frustrated with the media
In public, Mr. Pompeo has staunchly rejected the notion that he or anyone else in the administration was taken by surprise by how the summit in Vietnam played out.
He expressed frustration during the hours after the Hanoi press conference that an NBC News report, published while the summit was underway, claimed the administration was giving up a demand that North Korea offer a full accounting of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
He also bristled when asked why a tentative schedule circulated by the White House on the second day of the summit included a line indicating Mr. Trump’s plan to participate “in a joint agreement signing ceremony” with Mr. Kim on the second and last day of the summit, a ceremony that never took place.
“I watched predictions overnight from the media, people who acted like they knew what was going on,” Mr. Pompeo told reporters as his airplane cut through the night between Hanoi and Manila.
“If any of you did that and said things that turned out to be wrong — I saw an NBC report that said, ‘Oh, we’d given up on a declaration’ — you should all go back and correct your reporting,” the secretary said. “That would be really important. I think that would give you a lot more credibility to the world than going out and saying silly things that you know nothing about and speculating.”
By the next morning, Mr. Pompeo was cordial again as the same journalists followed him through the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel. But he didn’t hesitate to wave them from the room so his breakfast with Philippine business leaders could get underway, in private.