President Donald Trump has turned his daily intelligence briefing — a routine that in previous administrations has been a dry, formal affair — into a free-flowing conversation during which he peppers his CIA director, former House member Mike Pompeo, with questions about everything from national security threats to the internal dynamics of Congress.
After their 10 a.m. sessions, which Pompeo conducts in person about four mornings a week, Trump often asks Pompeo to accompany him to his next meeting — whatever it is.
The CIA director’s favored status in the West Wing has made him the odds-on choice to succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, according to more than half a dozen administration officials and outside advisers familiar with the White House’s current plans. It’s not clear when Tillerson might leave — he has vigorously denied rumors that he plans to resign anytime soon — but Pompeo has told associates that he expects the president to tap him for the position and that he’d accept the job if it’s offered to him.
Trump’s relationship with Pompeo mirrors the close bond he developed with John Kelly while the retired Marine general was serving as secretary of Homeland Security — and promoted Kelly to chief of staff within six months, replacing former Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus.
“Like President Trump, Director Pompeo is clear-eyed and hard-nosed about the threats we face, and he speaks in the direct, blunt manner of a man who has no time to waste when confronting those threats,” said Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who served alongside Pompeo in the House.
A White House spokesman said Trump has no personnel announcements to make and that the president’s relationship with Tillerson remains strong. “The president is very pleased with his entire national security team, which includes Secretary Tillerson and Director Pompeo,” said Raj Shah, the White House’s principal deputy press secretary. “Together, they have led the world toward unprecedented pressure on North Korea, are crushing ISIS in Iraq and Syria and have convinced NATO members to contribute more to the common defense.”
Pompeo is an amalgam of the qualities the president prizes most among his subordinates, from sterling academic credentials to military valor and business success. A graduate of West Point and Harvard Law School, Pompeo went on to found an aerospace and private security company before running for Congress in 2010. As a staunch conservative and a foreign policy hawk, he is also a closer ideological match with Trump than the former ExxonMobil chief executive, an establishment Republican who has routinely clashed with the White House.
“Trump likes guys who finished first at West Point; that’s a Trump kind of guy,” said a friend of Pompeo’s. “He also likes people who have had considerable business and wealth-creating success.”
Pompeo has established himself as a Cabinet member willing to perform uncomfortable cleanup duty for the president, defending Trump at some of the lowest points of his presidency. He made the Sunday show rounds to defend the president’s response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August, even as other administration officials went silent. Last week, he took a meeting at Trump’s request with Willian Binney, a conspiracy theorist who has denied any Russian interference in the 2016 election, which appeared to lend credence to a theory that has been discredited by the CIA and every other American intelligence agency.
Pompeo has, however, publicly broken with the president over the question of Russian interference in the election, making clear that the CIA’s view differs from that of the president himself, who has steadfastly refused to say explicitly that he believes in Russian malfeasance. When Trump on Saturday said that he believed Vladimir Putin was sincere when he denied any meddling, the CIA reiterated that the agency stood by its assessment that the Kremlin was behind email hacks and social media campaigns designed to benefit Trump.
Yet, whereas Tillerson has consistently worked to counter the president’s hawkish instincts, pushing to open talks with North Korea and opposing the decertification of the Iran nuclear deal, for example, Pompeo’s views are more in tune with the president’s views on foreign policy.
“Pompeo is a skeptic toward the traditional thinking in Washington about Iran and North Korea,” said Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “Tillerson pushed back on policy things and at times he reflected that there’s always a diplomatic solution. Pompeo will think outside the box. He’s also willing to not attack Trump openly, which most of this administration seems willing to do.”
While Trump initially viewed Tillerson as a peer in the Cabinet — another plain-spoken millionaire who had achieved considerable business success — the relationship was quickly strained, with his status as the nation’s top diplomat challenged by presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner. Trump publicly vetoed his first-choice deputy, Elliott Abrams, just weeks into the new administration.
Since then, the two have clashed on issues ranging from trade and immigration to the decertification of the Iran deal. Few believe anymore that he speaks for the president — a privilege required for a secretary of state to conduct diplomacy. In a remarkable news conference last month, Tillerson publicly swatted down rumors of his imminent resignation after NBC News reported that he had privately called the president a “moron.”
His refusal to explicitly refute that charge, however, sent the president, who at the time was aboard Air Force One en route to Las Vegas to console survivors of a mass shooting, into a rage, according to White House officials who traveled with him.
Pompeo has told associates that he is in no rush to leave the CIA and would happily serve there for eight years — but that, if asked to take another position in the administration, he prefers one where he would grapple with some serious challenges.
“This has never been a topic discussed during the secretary’s regular breakfast meetings with the director,” said State Department spokesman R.C. Hammond. “I do know they discuss the national security challenges facing the United States and coordinate how they are implementing the president’s strategies for protecting our country.” The CIA declined to comment for this story.
During his time at the CIA, Pompeo has made it a goal to put the agency on a more aggressive footing, making it more agile and increasing the number of clandestine agents sent into the field. “We’re back in the business of stealing secrets,” Pompeo told reporters last spring, a tacit critique of his Obama administration predecessor, John Brennan, who rankled agency veterans last year when he told NPR that the U.S. government doesn’t “steal secrets.”
How Pompeo would fare in a diplomatic role, overseeing a department with about 75,000 employees, is less clear. Elected to Congress to represent Kansas’ 4th District in the tea party wave of 2010, Pompeo quickly emerged as one of the GOP’s rising stars — an unabashed partisan with an instinct for the political jugular and the brains to back it up. Along with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), he wrote a 48-page addendum to the final report submitted by the House Select Committee on Benghazi — not to dispute any of its findings, but merely to highlight some of its conclusions, including what they characterized as the Obama administration’s willful public deception about the attacks for political reasons.
As Pompeo’s relationship with the president has deepened, people close to Trump say he has cooled on the idea of nominating U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to succeed Tillerson. Haley has been perhaps the most visible face of American foreign policy in the Trump administration. Though she has often been mentioned as a potential successor to Tillerson, Haley late last month told CNN that she “would not take” the secretary of state job if it was offered to her. The president has been turned off in part by speculation that Haley has her eyes on a presidential bid, two people close to the president said.
Like Pompeo, she is more in tune with the Trump foreign policy agenda than Tillerson — but unlike the CIA director, she has cultivated a media profile. Appearing frequently on the Sunday morning talk-show circuit on the administration’s behalf, she quickly eclipsed Tillerson as the administration’s leading diplomat. A senior White House official said that for a president who likes to be the center of attention, Haley “flew too close to the sun.”
Pompeo was confirmed by the Senate two days after the president’s inauguration in late January, and he has been participating in Trump’s morning intelligence briefings ever since.
Since the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created in 2005 to integrate the intelligence collected across numerous U.S. agencies, however, that office has been responsible for producing and performing the President’s Daily Brief, or PDB — the daily briefings presidents receive on the most pressing intelligence and national security threats. When Dan Coats, the president’s director of national intelligence, was confirmed in mid-March, the assumption was that he would take over the briefings — but Trump asked Pompeo to keep making the trip downtown from Langley.
Pompeo’s almost-daily presence at the White House marks a departure from the past 12 years, when the director of national intelligence and more junior CIA officials typically delivered the briefing, though the CIA director has always participated on occasion.
POLITICO reported in June that Pompeo spends so much time in the White House that he set up a temporary office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building across the street. “A big chunk of his day is structured around doing these personal briefings for the president,” said one person close to both Trump and Pompeo. “I think he probably spends more time with Trump than anyone who works on national security other than [national security adviser H.R.] McMaster.”
Pompeo’s friends said he worries that may change if he moves to Foggy Bottom. “He has this very close relationship with Trump, and you can’t nurture it the same way when you’re traveling all the time,” Jeffrey said. “He wants to maintain a close relationship with Trump, and as long as Trump is president, that’s a good thing.”