President Donald Trump is trying to hit reset at the State Department on the eve of a critical decision on the Iran nuclear deal and a potential summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump made his first visit to the department on Wednesday for the ceremonial swearing-in of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, highlighting his relationship with the head of a Cabinet agency he largely neglected during the tenure of Rex Tillerson. The former Exxon Mobil CEO was unceremoniously dumped by Trump as the top U.S. diplomat in March after months of personality and policy clashes.
Tillerson felt undercut in the job and was viewed overseas as an unreliable emissary for the mercurial Trump. Tillerson went unmentioned during Wednesday’s brief ceremony, but Pompeo’s contrasting status was on full display. The former CIA director is personally close to the president and gained stature abroad after his secret visit to North Korea last month to meet with Kim.
“That’s more spirit than I’ve heard from the State Department in a long time,” Trump said as he took the podium to applause from the crowd on ornate seventh floor.
It was a tacit acknowledgement that department morale had suffered under Tillerson, who undertook an unpopular restructuring of the department before he was fired. Pompeo has repeatedly promised to reinvigorate the department.
“I want the State Department to get its swagger back,” he said.
Trump’s visit put a spotlight on his close ties with Pompeo. Tillerson and Trump rarely saw eye to eye on policy, and Trump felt little chemistry with the fellow former business executive.
After a heated debate at the Pentagon over Afghanistan policy last summer, Tillerson reportedly called Trump a “moron” to other officials — and the revelation of the comment in the media irreparably damaged his rapport with the president.
Pompeo, by contrast, developed a strong relationship with Trump in large part through his regular attendance at the president’s daily intelligence briefing at the White House. Trump developed a personal liking for Pompeo during the 2016 campaign, when the then-GOP congressman from Kansas was one of his earliest Washington endorsers.
Pompeo was the top graduate of his West Point class and an Army tank officer, and his credentials and blunt demeanor fit the mold for a top national security aide in Trump’s mind, White House officials said.
At the CIA, Pompeo oversaw a secret back channel to the North Korean government, and on April 1, weeks after his State Department nomination, Pompeo made a secret trip to Pyongyang to meet with Kim in advance of a potential meeting with Trump.
“Right now we have unprecedented opportunity to change the course of history on the Korean Peninsula,” Pompeo said Wednesday, as Trump and Kim move closer to finalizing details on a summit.
Trump has been particularly disdainful of the work done by the State Department during the Obama administration. He has savaged the Iran nuclear deal, which was largely negotiated by former Secretary of State John Kerry, and is expected to pull out of the agreement later this month.
Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, another Kerry achievement. And Trump routinely excoriated Hillary Clinton and the department she led for her use of a private email server and the response to the 2012 attack on U.S. facilities In Benghazi, Libya.
Trump’s scorn has continued in office. Trump’s budget proposals have sought to slash the department’s funding by some 30 percent and reduce its ranks. Many officials were shocked and saddened when the president, with Tillerson at his side last year, thanked Russia for expelling U.S. diplomats because it would save money. The White House later said Trump had been joking.
The department has many vacancies at senior positions and has reduced the intake of new diplomats since Trump took office. Although he has complained about the slow pace of Senate confirmations for ambassadorial and senior posts, Trump has not yet formally nominated people for numerous top positions, only three of nine of which are currently occupied.
Pompeo was confirmed last Thursday, and was officially sworn-in hours later by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito before he embarked on his first foreign trip as secretary.