Washington (CNN)Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s groundbreaking trip to a West Bank settlement Thursday was meant to highlight the Trump administration’s commitment to Israel. Instead, it reignited speculation that the top US diplomat’s higher priority is his own political future.
Pompeo, the first US secretary of state to visit a settlement and the Golan Heights, touted the Trump administration’s break with international consensus to recognize settlements as Israeli territory and its determination to help Israeli businesses in the West Bank avoid international sanctions. But when the news inadvertently leaked that the trip was being described as part of the “Pompeo Doctrine,” the criticism was instantaneous.
“Pompeo’s West Bank winery and Golan excursions have nothing to do with America’s ambitions but his own in 2024,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, tweeted.
Pompeo’s visit was in line with the Trump administration’s stated policy and those who know him well argued that he was just doing his job. “Arguably anytime he does something for his job you could say he is making a 2024 play,” said a source close to the secretary.
Others viewed it differently. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss chimed in. “A Secretary of State should not use his Senate-confirmed job to run for President.”
Intent on staying in politics
State Department officials tried to stuff the genie in the bottle — they told reporters they shouldn’t attribute the phrase to the State Department, after they had shared it with reporters, and insisted it was commonly used inside Israel. The claim left many Israelis scratching their heads.
The widespread assumption that Pompeo’s trip was about politics as much as policy is rooted in his track record of appearing to mix the two — at first in apparent service of a potential Senate run in Kansas and now with the sense he may have 2024 presidential ambitions.
That impression has been capped by recent coffee meetings the Secretary has been holding at the State Department with Republican strategists and conservative media, according to two sources familiar with the meetings.
With just a few weeks left in this administration, Pompeo appears to be actively working toward political life after Trump, recently inviting at least one small group of Republicans to the meetings, including strategists and right-leaning reporters.
A source familiar with the coffee gatherings said that “as Mike Pompeo prepares to run, he wants to sit down with people in Republican circles he has not met, or he has not talked to in a while.”
“Over the past few weeks they are getting more aggressive,” this source said of the meetings. “Pompeo is trying to build out his contacts and he is doing that on every level. He wants people who can raise money, he wants people who do political consulting, he wants people who can write, and people who can talk.”
Another source familiar with Pompeo’s thinking downplayed the top US diplomat’s presidential posturing, saying “he has always been someone who thinks about today.”
The source said they did not believe that the presidency is as actively on Pompeo’s mind as many think and noted that Israel has long been a passion of his.
But other sources close to the Secretary say he’s intent on staying in politics when President-elect Joe Biden takes office and that he isn’t expected to return to the private sector. Pompeo is “not done with the fight,” said a source close to him at the State Department.
Pompeo could write a book, give speeches and join academic institutions or corporate boards when he leaves State, two sources told CNN. He could also launch his own political platforms such as a super PAC so that he can give money to down-ballot candidates across the country — a classic way to build political loyalty. But those details have not been widely fleshed out, the sources said.
“Mike Pompeo is focused on doing his job as Secretary of State, and he has made no plans post January 21st period,” the source close to Pompeo added.
“He is keeping his cards close to his chest,” said a second source who has worked with Pompeo in the past. That said, the idea has enough public currency that someone is hawking a “Mike Pompeo 2024” t-shirt on Amazon for $16.99.
“I think it is pretty inevitable that he would run,” said GOP strategist Doug Heye. “The challenge that he will face, and others will face too, is that a lot of others will run solely with the Trump mantle, including senators, members of Congress, and other former administration officials.”
Nathan Gonzales, the editor of Inside Elections newsletter, adds that, “it’s hard to know what Republican voters are actually going to be looking for in future elections … Only with some distance and time will we know whether being closely aligned with the President is an asset or a liability.”
‘Focus on your day job!’
Pompeo has used taxpayer funded travel to hold undisclosed meetings with political donors in London and Florida and make political speeches, such as his August remarks to the Republican National Convention while on official travel to Israel — a possible violation of law.
He has held lavish taxpayer-funded ‘Madison Dinners’ that included GOP lawmakers along with ambassadors and influential Republican donors, raising concerns he was cultivating political backers and prompting an investigation by the State Department inspector general. The model Kathy Ireland attended one of the dinners this fall, according to a source in attendance who said conversation that evening focused heavily on politics — not foreign policy.
Pompeo also assiduously courted conservative media, often in Kansas markets, and used one official 2019 visit to the state to meet with billionaire Charles Koch, his longtime political backer, to discuss a Senate run there, according to the Wall Street Journal.
That trip was one of so many to the state that year that the exasperated Kansas City Star newspaper published an op-ed titled, “Mike Pompeo, either quit and run for US Senate in Kansas or focus on your day job.”
Repeatedly, over the past few months, Pompeo has worked in stops that appeal to conservative and evangelical voters who strongly backed Trump.
During this week’s trip to Israel, Pompeo also visited the site of Jesus’ baptism and announced the US would identify organizations that boycott Israeli settlements as anti-Semitic and ensure they get no US funding, a step Amnesty International described as an attack on free speech.
When a former Obama administration official charged that Pompeo seemed to be using the trip to look out for his own political interests, Pompeo shot back on Twitter that he was simply engaging in “good foreign policy.”
The visit was welcomed by evangelical leaders, such as Bob Vander Plaats, president and CEO of the Family Leadership Summit, who told CNN also visited the same winery last year.
But many analysts thought Pompeo went too far. “The itinerary and the absence of a largely substantive agenda suggests to me that this has much more to do with Pompeo’s aspirations in 2024 than the realities of what is being confronted in 2020, particularly with respect to the Israeli piece of it,” said Miller, a former Middle East negotiator.
“It works very well with Evangelicals. It works very well with about a quarter of the American Jewish community, it works with conservative Republicans. And these are issues that are highly volatile and play extremely well,” said Miller, who is also a CNN analyst.
Pompeo has used his position to tout other policies that strongly appeal to evangelicals — including religious freedom policies, strong anti-abortion measures and steps seen as aimed at limiting rights for LGBTQ Americans. He’s also courted conservative and evangelical groups in person.
Over the past few months, Pompeo has spoken at a megachurch in Texas, appeared at the conservative Values Voters Summit, and delivered the keynote address for a conservative, anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion Christian organization in Florida.
Earlier this year, Pompeo visited the Iowa for the Family Leadership Summit — an event hosted by the conservative organization The Family Leader that has become a frequent stop for Republican politicians.
And Pompeo has broadcast his own evangelical faith widely, speaking about it often in official interviews, mentioning the Bible he keeps on his desk and publicly describing rights as emanating from God, not government. One former senior State Department official said they saw Pompeo’s comments on religion “as largely political, simply because evangelicals are an important part of the President’s political base.”
“It’s a base that Pompeo can communicate with because they see him as one of them,” the official said. “It reflects not only the Secretary’s desire to play the one of the President’s strong points, but also meshes nicely with his own presidential ambitions.”