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Mike Pompeo's rise from Kansas businessman to potentially 4th in line for presidency

CIA Director Mike Pompeo, at a Senate hearing in May, 2017.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By JONATHAN SHORMAN, HUNTER WOODALL AND LINDSAY WISE | The Wichita Eagle | Published: March 13, 2018

WICHITA, Kan. (Tribune News Service) — As a Kansas congressman, Mike Pompeo developed a reputation as a brash, hard-line conservative. He was quick to butt heads with Democrats and made a name for himself pursuing Hillary Clinton over her handling of the Benghazi attack as U.S. secretary of state.

He’s now poised to take over that same position — the next step in a meteoric rise from Wichita businessman to a man potentially fourth in line for the presidency in less than a decade.

President Donald Trump ousted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday and named Pompeo, the current CIA director, as his replacement. The Republican-controlled U.S. Senate must still confirm the appointment.

Trump, in quick remarks outside the White House Tuesday morning, said Pompeo has “tremendous energy, tremendous intellect. We’re always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been very good. … I think Mike Pompeo will be a truly great secretary of state.”

Mark Kahrs, the Kansas Republican national committeeman, said he thinks Trump “trusts (Pompeo’s) judgment, respects his intellect, his military background and I think they see eye to eye on a lot of the world issues. Whereas the president and Rex Tillerson did not. And I think the president deserves to have a secretary of state that supports his agenda internationally and nationally, and I think he’ll have that with Mike Pompeo.”

Pompeo has a take-charge personality, said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan. He said Pompeo has done a good job at the CIA, where “the best news … is that there isn’t any news and that there’s no leaks.”

Pompeo often delivers briefings in person to Trump, a sign that he has the president’s trust, Roberts said.

Pompeo was born in California. He studied mechanical engineering at West Point and served in the Army. He holds a degree from Harvard Law School.

He moved to Wichita in the mid-’90s, where he helped found Thayer Aerospace. He also served as president of Sentry International, an oil production equipment company.

Pompeo rode a wave of tea party anger into Congress into 2010. He was sharply critical of President Obama’s administration, including Clinton’s handling of the September 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including an ambassador.

He served on a House panel that investigated the attack. While the committee’s report was critical of Clinton, Pompeo helped write a separate report accusing Clinton of downplaying the attack in the run-up to Obama’s reelection.

Although Pompeo took on Democrats directly, he largely avoided Republican infighting, said Russell Arben Fox, a political science professor at Friends University in Wichita. Fox said Pompeo presented himself to voters as a conservative Republican, but one who was responsible and professional.

“He was a good, solid, central casting conservative Republican,” Fox said. “Now obviously, you talk to people on the left side of the aisle and you talk to Democrats and you’ll get a different opinion. He can be dismissive. He could be condescending — but never, in my experience, to anybody he hadn’t already identified as a political opponent.”

Pompeo’s past comments on Islam may stir controversy as he seeks to move into the role of the nation’s chief diplomat. Muslim Advocates, an organization based in Washington, D.C., objected to Pompeo’s selection.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, Pompeo said the silence of American Islamic leaders made them “potentially complicit in these acts and more importantly still, in those that may well follow.”

Pompeo’s past experience navigating the pitfalls of party politics may help him as secretary. He has also largely avoided controversy while serving as CIA director, with few reports of the kind of blow-up disagreements with Trump that have plagued other administration officials, including Tillerson.

“He’s an extremely good diplomat, Mike is,” said Kansas Republican Party chairman Kelly Arnold. “ … He comes to the table well prepared.”

Trump told reporters on Tuesday morning that “with Mike we’ve had a very good chemistry right from the beginning.”

Patrick Miller, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, said Pompeo’s rapid rise may stem from his ability to act as a stabilizing force in Trump’s Cabinet. Tillerson’s tenure at the State Department was marked by low morale among career staff and ill-received efforts to trim the agency.

By contrast, Pompeo may offer a steadier organizational hand.

“If confirmed, I look forward to guiding the world’s finest diplomatic corps in formulating and executing the President’s foreign policy. In my time as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, I have worked alongside many remarkable Foreign Service officers and Department of State leaders serving here in the United States and on the very edge of freedom,” Pompeo said in a statement.

Trump has repeatedly rejected suggestions that his campaign colluded with the Russian government ahead of the 2016 election. But Pompeo has stood up for the conclusion of American intelligence agencies that Russia did meddle in the election.

“Mike has never been hesitant to offer an opinion contrary to where the majority is going and if he has a strong view otherwise I think he’ll tell (Trump) and I think (that) has happened with the daily briefing he’s given the president,” Roberts said.

Wise reported from Washington. Bryan Lowry of The Kansas City Star and Anita Kumar of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report.

©2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)
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