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Journalist Explains How Mike Pompeo Helps 'Translate Trump' To The World


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The summit between President Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, collapsed with no agreement on steps toward North Korea's nuclear disarmament. The summit is just the latest challenge in a larger balancing act for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, writes my guest, journalist Mattathias Schwartz.

He describes Pompeo as the primary architect of Trump's negotiations over the nuclear arsenal controlled by Kim Jong Un. Another part of Pompeo's job, according to Schwartz, is traveling the world cleaning up Trump's messes after Trump tries to execute hairpin policy turns, often by tweet.

Schwartz's new article, titled "Mike Pompeo's Mission: Translating Trump To A Wary World," will be published Sunday in The New York Times magazine, where he is a contributing writer. The article is already on the website.

Pompeo served in the House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017. He was part of the conservative anti-Obama Tea Party movement. After Trump became president, he appointed Pompeo to head the CIA. In 2018, Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as Trump's secretary of state.

Mattathias Schwartz has written for The New Yorker and New York Magazine, and is a former national security reporter for The Intercept.

Mattathias Schwartz, welcome to FRESH AIR. So the nuclear summit ended prematurely, no deal. What does this say about Mike Pompeo, who was so key in organizing the summit?

MATTATHIAS SCHWARTZ: It's definitely a setback for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a diplomat, Terry. This has been his, kind of, lodestar issue. It's something that President Trump tasked him with. And the expectations that something would be signed or there'd be some kind of progress from the second summit were pretty well established both by the White House and the State Department that something was going to come out of this.

So it's a setback for both of them, I think a little bit more for President Trump than for Secretary Pompeo. But it's definitely near the bottom end of potential outcomes.

GROSS: So, you know, some people are saying, well, there wasn't enough work and planning going into this. They should have known there wasn't going to be a deal. Maybe it was premature for a summit. What was Pompeo's role in arranging the summit and planning out how it would happen?

SCHWARTZ: Terry, Mike Pompeo made several trips to Pyongyang and elsewhere to meet with his North Korean counterparts, try to get a sense of where they were. He appointed a special envoy named Stephen Biegun who also engaged in a lot of these preliminary meetings.

So they were trying to get a sense of where the North Koreans were at. And clearly, just based on the messaging that went out beforehand, they did not have a handle on - a total handle, at least, on their counterparts' position.

GROSS: At the press conference after the summit ended prematurely, Mike Pompeo was standing next to President Trump. Does that convey a message?

SCHWARTZ: It's very interesting, Terry. We saw this in Brussels, too, at the NATO summit, with Pompeo standing beside and a little bit behind President Trump, and then President Trump inviting him up to answer some questions. And it's interesting. Usually, in this kind of situation, you would have a president by himself, you know, as the face of the U.S. government, feeling that he himself is fully capable of answering any question that comes to the table.

Another thing about the press conference is this, to me, suggested that Pompeo - at least on North Korea - is able to restrain Trump to some degree. There were serious worries going into this summit that Trump was going to go off on his own, do some freelancing, really sell out U.S. interests to win a news cycle, as he certainly appeared to have done before. We saw that happen at Helsinki and at other places.

He didn't do that. Instead, he did nothing. And I think for Pompeo, no deal was not the worst outcome that could have come out of Hanoi. The worst outcome would have been Trump taking everyone by surprise.

GROSS: And doing what?

SCHWARTZ: Oh, doing something like taking all U.S. troops out of South Korea, which is something he's talked about before; doing something like lifting all sanctions in exchange for, you know, very limited steps towards denuclearization, which is what the North Koreans were asking for. And he didn't do that. And that suggests that in this case, you know, his staff - you know, Pompeo first among them on this issue - was able to keep him coloring inside the lines.

GROSS: You write that the North Korea summit is just the latest challenge in the larger balancing act for Mike Pompeo. What's the balancing act you're describing?

SCHWARTZ: Perhaps the biggest balancing act that Mike Pompeo has to undertake while serving President Trump is between the United States and the rest of the world. President Trump has some incredibly isolationist instincts. He's talked about pulling U.S. troops, you know, out of Europe. He's talked about pulling them out of South Korea. He's talked about not coming to the assistance of our NATO allies under Article 5, as required by a treaty that the United States has agreed to.

And this has really frightened U.S. partners around the world. And part of Mike Pompeo's job has been to calm those people down and assure them that there is continuity, that there are institutions, and that the main thrusts of U.S. engagement with the world aren't going to change. Meanwhile, he has to persuade the president to go along with at least some of this. And that's a challenge.

One place where we saw this happen was at the last NATO summit in Brussels in July. President Trump threw an enormous tantrum. He started yelling at Angela Merkel in a closed meeting that he arrived at late. He came fairly close to saying that he was considering withdrawing the United States from NATO altogether. He took, I think, a lot of people there completely by surprise.

And then later, after that, I think about three or four months, Secretary Pompeo came back to NATO headquarters. He met with the director general. He gave, you know, a big speech to the German Marshall Fund that had a lot of table-thumping about America first but also said that NATO is an important institution. So he sort of found a middle there.

And now what happened in Brussels has been chocked up as, oh, that was just President Trump doing his thing, trying to get more contributions from our NATO partners, trying to get them up to their 2 percent goals faster. It was just a negotiating tactic. It wasn't - he wasn't serious about it.

I've spoken to a few folks who were there, and people who were there at the time were pretty freaked out. Like, they felt like the situation was out of control. But now I think Mike Pompeo has helped put a frame around that, where if people are still rattled, but they feel like it's normal and that this will pass and that not everything the president says needs to be taken so literally.

GROSS: So one of the people you interviewed for your New York Times magazine piece about Mike Pompeo is General Michael Hayden, the former head of the CIA and the NSA. And Hayden compared Pompeo to the character of The Wolf, the Harvey Keitel character in "Pulp Fiction" who's called in to clean up messes - for instance, a literal bloody mess after a murder.

So give us an example of a time when Mike Pompeo was called in to, like, clean up a mess created by the president.

SCHWARTZ: So one thing that The Wolf and Mike Pompeo have in common is their manner. They're very direct, kind of fast-talking. I don't think they suffer fools. And they deal - they sort of issue a very high volume of orders. And we can remember The Wolf doing this with Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta's characters in the guy's kitchen, where Travolta wants to push back and shout and Keitel is like, you know, shut up. We need to get this done, and you're going to listen to me or I'm going to leave.

And I think Pompeo has a similar sort of - you know, he went to West Point. He comes from a military background. I think he has a similar no-nonsense manner. One big mess that Mike Pompeo cleaned up for President Trump early on is the President's Daily Brief, which is the morning summary of important intelligence that the president gets, if not every day, then on most days.

And if we remember back to 2017, there were a lot of leaks coming out of the President's Daily Brief - not about its content, but about Trump not being the best recipient, not being the best listener, not paying attention, not taking it very often, not asking good questions and not even necessarily believing that objective reality was true. And, you know, a lot of the claims were very derogatory to him.

And it was clear that the whole thing was kind of going off the rails. Mike Pompeo, shortly after the inauguration, took control of that process. I think he was the lead briefer. There was a larger group of people from the White House, you know, maybe eight or nine or even more sometimes who received the brief. And then these stories about the president's bad behavior, they started to go away, and the process normalized.

And these interactions between the president and these people from CIA and other intelligence agencies who come in to brief him - somehow, Mike Pompeo wrangled that into a form that was acceptable to both parties, you know, both the president and then these agencies that serve him but are also deeply suspicious of him.

GROSS: And you said that Pompeo was able to present the daily brief in terms that Trump wanted to hear. What questions did Trump typically want answered?

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I spoke to someone from the administration who's left who told me that he has four questions that he really likes to ask. Why should I care? What's in it for us? Can someone else do it? And how much does it cost? It's true that every president's had a different style. Barack Obama was a big reader. He would get big binders of stuff delivered and go through them in advance.

Trump - it's spoken to him. He doesn't do any advance reading, is what reports say. He's not the first president who prefers it that way. I believe that was also usually the case with George W. Bush. So each president does it differently. But there's sort of correlation, but not causation. We know that after Pompeo took control of the process, these stories came to a stop.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Mattathias Schwartz. He's a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. His new piece is called "Mike Pompeo's Mission: Translate Trump To A Wary World." And that's wary. So we're going to take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Mattathias Schwartz. He's a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, and his new piece is called "Mike Pompeo's Mission: Translate Trump To A Wary World."

You were one of eight journalists who traveled with Mike Pompeo on a trip to the Middle East in early January. What was the purpose of the trip?

SCHWARTZ: Secretary Pompeo's purpose on the Middle East trip was to roll out the Trump administration's big policy goals in the Middle East. These include the Israeli-Palestinian peace deals that's been a big project of Jared Kushner's. President Trump has also talked about wanting to create an Arab NATO where U.S. allies would put up more money for defending the regions so the U.S. could remain involved, but also take a step back.

And then some of it was just the simple gardening of diplomacy, as it's sometimes called, where you're checking in on your neighbors, see how they're doing. So he had meetings set up with big U.S. allies in the region and also smaller countries where we have important military bases.

Finally, he wanted to get everyone on the same page with the, quote, unquote, "maximum pressure campaign against Iran." And this has been the lodestar of the Trump administration's foreign policy - is trying to change Iran's behavior, or if that doesn't work, change Iran's government. So he wanted to talk to, principally, Saudi Arabia, which is Iran's big historic enemy in the region, about, you know, the work they have to do there.

GROSS: Pompeo gave a speech in Cairo, which seemed to be a rebuttal to Obama's speech when Obama was in his early presidency and Obama addressed Muslims around the world. What did - what were the main takeaways of Pompeo's speech when he seemed to be rebutting Obama?

SCHWARTZ: Secretary Pompeo rebuked Obama for mischaracterizing the threat of terrorism and for saying that just a change in attitude could change the facts on the ground. That's a paraphrase. And he has a point in terms of what happened, you know, with the U.S. pulling out from Iraq under President Obama, and then subsequent to that, the rise of ISIS.

It was a very direct criticism of a previous administration, and it does set this sort of uncomfortable precedent where each new president comes in and just dumps on the one before. And I wonder what the - you know, if I were in the Egyptian government, I'd just be wondering, well, what's the next guy going to say, and how do I even know that there are any consistent people here who I can deal with?

Secretary Pompeo also rebuked Obama for being too apologetic about the Iraq invasion and not sort of just owning the goodness of the U.S. The title of the speech was "The U.S.: A Force For Good In The Middle East." And he was just saying, you know - the idea was that the U.S. - when the U.S. intervenes in the Middle East, good things happen, which is a little bit contrary to history.

It was also very contrary to a tweet that President Trump had issued a few weeks before saying that we're withdrawing from Syria. It was a very ironic moment, even as Secretary Pompeo was saying the U.S. is here for good. We're engaged. Our interventions are a force for good. Meanwhile, President Trump is saying, no, we're leaving. And that announcement took a lot of allies by surprise. And during the trip, Secretary Pompeo had a lot of explaining to do.

GROSS: Somebody who was seemingly leading the applause after the speech - you went over and introduced yourself to him. He was Joel Rosenberg.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah, he was sitting right behind me. He definitely led the applause. I was asked this by the checkers. I'm 100 percent certain about - that he led the applause after Secretary Pompeo praised President Sissi, the authoritarian ruler of Egypt, for his courage.

GROSS: OK. So you introduced yourself to Joel Rosenberg and wanted to find out more about him. So he's an author, and he is an evangelical. Describe his books.

SCHWARTZ: So he writes books. Some of his books are about analyzing current events in the Middle East and talking about the root causes of terrorism. Other of his books are sort of - he has other books that are more in this sort of science fiction realm of - but it's almost like religious science fiction about prophecies and things that might happen...

GROSS: In the end times.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. He's also got books that are similar to the "Left Behind" series. They're literature about prophecy - biblical prophecy about the end of the world taking place on Earth. And then he even has at least one book called "Epicenter" where those two things intersect and where - you know, where Joel is sort of locating signs that the end of the world could be, might be eminent, you know, in - within the realm of current events.

And this is something that he's talked about on Fox News. He's linked events unfolding on the ground in Syria with verses from Jeremiah. And so he's very interested in reading current events through the Bible.

GROSS: Through the lens of the Bible.

SCHWARTZ: Through the lens of the Bible and through - and particularly with respect to the Middle East, and particularly the parts of the Bible that deal with the end of the world.

GROSS: So what's his relationship to Pompeo?

SCHWARTZ: The two men met when Pompeo was in Congress. Pompeo's staff reached out to Rosenberg and said that Pompeo was a fan of Rosenberg's books. They've stayed in touch since then. I think they met a few times. And Rosenberg, by all lights, is extremely influential. He lives in Jerusalem. Vice President Pence has shown him around the White House. He's also met with the king of Jordan.

And so, you know, some of the stuff he hears from these guys, these leaders of governments, filters back into his books. So (laughter) his books actually do have a lot of juicy, current stuff in them because he really is up to date with what's happening on the ground.

GROSS: So Rosenberg writes a lot about the rapture in fictional work. And Pompeo has referred to the rapture in at least one speech. He was speaking at a church and quoted or referred to the pastor Terry Fox, who had invited him there. And Pompeo said, we will continue to fight these battles. It's a never-ending struggle until that moment, folks, that Pastor Fox spoke about, until the rapture.

Do you have any sense of how much Pompeo believes that the rapture is imminent, that the end times are imminent? And if he does believe that, if it has any effect on his politics?

SCHWARTZ: I asked Secretary Pompeo this question, whether there was an intersection at all between, you know, his reading of the Bible and his reading the end times and his policy in the Middle East, and he really did not want to address it in a yes-or-no way. He talked about the Bible being a big influence on him.

There are also differing views on what the rapture is or what it means, or whether the end of the world will be a violent thing with a war, or whether, you know, it's just the bodies of the believers, Christian believers, exclusively, ascending into heaven. There's a lot of different readings of it.

So I'm not in a position to say what Pompeo means when he says that. And he, at least in our brief conversations - and he's a busy guy - didn't give me a clear description. So then I went to Pastor Terry Fox, who said that Pompeo was referring to the end times and the bodily the ascension of the believers into heaven. And then whether that's affected U.S. policy in the Middle East, I'm not really sure.

GROSS: My guest is Mattathias Schwartz. His article about Mike Pompeo will be in The New York Times Magazine on Sunday and is already on the website. We'll talk more after a break, and Justin Chang will review the new German film "Transit," and Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by the jazz sextet Boom Tic Boom. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Mattathias Schwartz. He writes about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in The New York Times Magazine. The article will be published in the Sunday paper but is already on the website.

Schwartz describes Pompeo as the primary architect of Trump's negotiations over the nuclear arsenal controlled by North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un. The talks between Trump and Kim collapsed today with no agreement. Another part of Pompeo's job, according to Schwartz, is traveling the world, cleaning up Trump's messes after Trump tries to execute hairpin policy turns, often by tweet. Pompeo served as Trump's first CIA director and before that was a Republican congressman representing a district in Kansas.

Let's talk a little bit about Mike Pompeo's background. He was born in 1963 in California. He went to West Point. You say his Christian faith intensified there. He belonged to a Bible study group. He graduated first in his class. Then after five years in the military, he went to Harvard Law School, where he was mentored by professor Mary Ann Glendon, a conservative Christian who later served as George W. Bush's ambassador to the Holy See in Rome. After the military and Harvard, you say he seemed to be headed for a corporate law career. That is the kind of career he started.

But in the mid-'90s, he made a big change. He divorced his wife. He left a job at a big law firm. And he moved to Kansas to go into business with three West Point graduates. Would you describe the business?

SCHWARTZ: In the mid-'90s, Mike Pompeo and a group of friends from West Point started Thayer Aerospace, a company that is based in Wichita. It took outside capital and acquired smaller, family-owned companies around the area that were involved in the aerospace industry.

Wichita is very big in aerospace. It took outside capital and acquired smaller, family-owned companies around the area that were involved in the aerospace industry - Wichita's very big in aerospace - and then tried to streamline them and increase their profits.

GROSS: And the Koch brothers were big investors in Thayer Aerospace.

SCHWARTZ: Yes. The Koch brothers, you know, who run Koch Industries, who are these big, big, big billionaire donors in the Republican Party - they're based in Wichita, and they were among Pompeo's initial backers for Thayer.

How big their stake was, we don't know. Exactly how Pompeo and the Kochs first met - I heard that it was just through social ties in the business community. Wichita is a pretty small town. But yeah, they were the backers of Thayer, and then they really took an interest in Pompeo's career later on.

GROSS: Did they help fund his campaign later on?

SCHWARTZ: Yes. He was the largest recipient of money from the Koch brothers on the Hill. He was known as the congressman from Koch. They had given quite generously to his predecessor in the district as well. His district does include their headquarters. But we certainly can see a lot of overlap between their views and his in terms of deregulation, for many, many years until recently being skeptical that climate change was real and these sort of libertarian and pro-business beliefs on the policy side.

GROSS: Pompeo became part of the Tea Party. What was his role within the Tea Party? Was he one of the leaders?

SCHWARTZ: Among the wave of anti-Obama firebrand congressmen who came in in 2010, Pompeo is one of the guys who really steeped himself in policy and really learned how to critique the administration and find what he perceived to be as weak spots and to really sort of go at them in hearings.

So he was one of the hardest questioners of Hillary Clinton during the hearings on Benghazi, and he also was a very harsh critic of the Iran deal and dug out some new facts from the State Department about just what the Iran deal was and the chronology and enforcement measures that helped bolster Republican arguments that it was a bad deal and that Obama had done something wrong by entering into it.

He also had some very, very harsh words for the religion of Islam. After the Boston Marathon, Pompeo went on the House floor and said that if Muslim leaders did not decry those attacks, then they were complicit, which is quite a statement.

GROSS: You profile Pompeo in the current edition of The New York Times Magazine. In an earlier issue, you profiled John Brennan, who had been the CIA director under President Obama. And so since you've both profiled two former CIA directors, Pompeo - that was his first job in the Trump administration - and Brennan, and since Brennan has been such a vocal critic of President Trump and since President Trump, after some really cutting criticisms of him, said he would strip Brennan of his security clearance, I thought it might be interesting to compare Pompeo and Brennan.

SCHWARTZ: Yeah, they have a lot of differences. They're both very, very smart, and that's not a word that I just hand out like candy. They're smart guys. Often people very close to the president - I think this is just what power does. They become mirrors of the president that they're serving. And I think one of the big differences between Brennan and Pompeo is that Brennan had a lot of doubt and is a very careful person, you know, agonizing about individual decisions, particularly with respect to drone strikes.

Pompeo, by contrast, is very bold. He came up through the military and in business. He was a congressman. He does not question himself. He's a very hard-driving guy. And I think, you know, the more doubtful, careful, hedged side of Brennan is something that - it's easy to see why Obama would have liked that.

And it's also easy to see why President Trump would like this very hard-driving character, you know, that General Hayden compared to Winston Wolf, the "Pulp Fiction" character, this guy who's just coming in, solving problems, getting it done and moving on. That's more his style.

GROSS: Pompeo is one of the few original members of the Trump administration in high-level positions who is still there in a high-level position. Many others were forced out, or they walked out. So what do you attribute to Pompeo's ability to stay within the administration?

SCHWARTZ: There are a lot of people in Washington - and I wasn't able to quote all of them - who despise the president, who castigate him on Twitter but who think very well of Pompeo, though they may not go on the record with that opinion. There are a lot of people for whom he's been able to build a bridge with the administration.

I mean, I'm talking about sort of the Washington consensus establishment on foreign policy and also the the permanent government that he's led inside of these agencies. The thing that Donald Trump castigates is, like, the so-called deep state. I think Pompeo has been able to reach an accommodation between that body of opinion and officialdom and the White House.

GROSS: Well, that leads to something similar that I was going to ask you about. Some people see some Pompeo as the adult in the room in the Trump administration, and others see him as a Trump enabler. Can you make a case for both sides? Can you describe both sides?

SCHWARTZ: Yeah. It comes down to, what are his interactions with the president really like? If you wanted to say that Pompeo is a Trump whisperer, you would look at what's happened with the president's policies on Syria. In mid-December, the president announces we're withdrawing all of our troops from Syria, that our boys and our young women are coming home now. And then 60 or 90 days later, it turns out we're actually going to leave a few hundred.

That's a big difference, and that's a case in which we've seen Pompeo and others in administration, like John Bolton, kind of nibble away at Donald Trump's instincts and turn him around even as they claim that they're not contradicting him at all because they, again, have to sort of put up this facade of unity and loyalty.

GROSS: So that'd be an argument for Pompeo being the adult in the room.

SCHWARTZ: Yes, it would be.

GROSS: And what's the argument for him being the enabler?

SCHWARTZ: If you want to see Pompeo as an enabler, look at what's happened in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, The Washington Post journalist and resident of Virginia who was, all the evidence suggests, brutally murdered by the Saudi government at the behest of the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Now, this is what the Senate thinks. It's what the House thinks. It's what reportedly the CIA thinks. It's not a conclusion that Donald Trump has been willing to accept. He's tried to cast as much doubt on it as possible. And it's also not something that Mike Pompeo has been able to convince him of.

And this isn't just about Khashoggi, as horrifying as that case is. I saw this on the ground in Saudi Arabia when Secretary Pompeo had his meeting with Mohammed bin Salman. It wasn't clear that he was pressing this case. There hasn't been a lot of progress with respect to trying to reach a peaceable settlement with the war that Saudi is undertaking in Yemen that's killed, you know, countless numbers of civilians with U.S. assistance - U.S. arms, U.S. targeting. So the softness on Saudi Arabia is, really, a case where Pompeo's been much more of an enabler.

There were words that said there would be accountability on Khashoggi. But that's been the U.S. government's line on Khashoggi for four months now. We're investigating it. We're gathering facts. We're going to decide who's responsible. Whoever's responsible will be held accountable. You know, the reporting says the CIA has already decided that Mohammed bin Salman is responsible. President Trump has already ruled out ever holding him accountable.

So one thing that did not happen when Secretary Pompeo met with MBS in Riyadh is we did not get any closer to resolving that contradiction. And it seems like the line the administration is taking is just kick this case down the road, and hope that folks are going to forget it.

GROSS: Well, Mattathias Schwartz, thank you so much for talking with us.

SCHWARTZ: Oh, thank you, Terry. It's so good to be here.

GROSS: Mattathias Schwartz is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. His article about Mike Pompeo will be in the magazine on Sunday and is already on the website. After we take a short break, Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by the jazz sextet Boom Tic Boom. This is FRESH AIR.

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