Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived at the State Department Tuesday to polite applause for the first time since being confirmed as the United States’ top diplomat.
In remarks meant to bolster State morale at State, Pompeo got in a few digs at his predecessor and signaled his closeness to the commander in chief by announcing that President Donald Trump will come to the State Department for the first time to formally swear him in Wednesday.
Pompeo told hundreds gathered in the department’s formal entrance that he was there to pump new life back into the oldest US Cabinet agency, at a time when the US faces serious foreign policy challenges in Asia and the Middle East, and after a year in which the agency has taken a back seat in the national security apparatus.
“My mission is to lead you,” Pompeo said, adding that he was humbled to take up the position. “America can’t achieve its objectives, absent you all,” he told the crowd. “I am looking forward to helping you all achieve that.”
“I know we will deliver for this President and this country,” Pompeo said. He told the crowd that Trump would be accompanied by some of his Cabinet members when he visits the agency on Wednesday.
“It’s an important day for the President’s first trip to this important place,” Pompeo said, inadvertently underscoring the seeming lack of interest the President had in State before his appointment.
Trump handed a chunk of the foreign policy portfolio to his son-in-law Jared Kushner; publicly belittled former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his administration wanted to cut the agency by about 30%.
Scores of senior positions remained unfilled through Trump’s first year, including ambassadorships in crucial places, such as South Korea or Afghanistan. Asked about those vacancies in a November interview, Trump offered some insight into his views on State by saying, “I’m the only one that matters.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump introduced Pompeo at a Rose Garden ceremony noting that he has “gotten more publicity than me lately, our new secretary of state.”
Trump went on to say that Pompeo has been “very busy.”
And he will continue to be. Beyond foreign policy challenges, Pompeo is inheriting a badly bruised agency from Tillerson. His goal, he said Tuesday, is to return some “swagger” to the department.
“I’m confident that I know who you are,” Pompeo said, flanked by his wife Susan. “You chose to be a Foreign Service officer, or a civil servant, or to come work here in many other capacities, and to do so because you’re patriots and great Americans and because you want to be an important part of America’s face to the world.”
Pompeo admitted that he has a lot to learn about the State Department and, in a dig at his predecessor, said he would spend as little time as possible on the seventh floor so he could get to know the organization.
Tillerson was known for walling himself off in the executive suites, distancing himself from staffers, and surrounding himself with aides who acted as fiercely protective gatekeepers. His style was seen by some as patronizing.
Pompeo said that he will soon speak to the entire State Department to lay out his expectations and hopes as well as his leadership style, which he told the crowd, “is very different.”
“One of the first rules is don’t talk down to people, right,” he said to laughter, given that he was standing above the crowd on a staircase. “So I’ll speak to you all right up here, exactly.”
The former three-term Kansas lawmaker rose in prominence in the Trump administration after being appointed CIA director, in part because of his strong relationship with the President. His stature within the administration may mark a turning point for the State Department, but the crowd seemed measured and cautious in its applause.
The 54-year-old California native and former tank commander graduated first in his class at West Point before later studying law at Harvard University. “We’re dealing with a cross between George Patton and Oliver Wendell Holmes,” joked Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, referring to the general and the Supreme Court justice.
“It’s the adversaries of the United States who are going to be facing that formidable opponent across the table,” Sullivan said.
Pompeo’s debut at his agency was delayed because he launched himself into his first international trip immediately after being sworn in, traveling to Belgium and the Middle East to shore up key alliances and discuss the Iran nuclear deal.
Asked in Brussels what his first steps will be to turn things around at the State Department, Pompeo talked about meeting diplomats while on the trip and offered promises, not specifics.
“They may have been demoralized, but they seemed in good spirits,” Pompeo said Friday at a press conference. “They are hopeful that the State Department will get its swagger back, that we will be out doing the things that they came onboard at the State Department to do: to be professional, to deliver diplomacy, American diplomacy around the world.”