Banal political figures like Mike Pompeo are far more dangerous to democracy than you think

Borzou Daragahi
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a State Department news conference on 29 April 2020 in Washington DC: POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Mike Pompeo seemed a strange fit for a Washington administration filled with old-school grifters and con artists. Although the US secretary of state shared with his boss, Donald Trump, a past as a failed businessman, he also graduated first in his class from the elite West Point military academy, served in the armed forces, and was previously elected as a member of Congress.

Brittle, thin-skinned and bombastic, for some time it appeared that he was cut from the same cloth as his protege Brian Hook, the administration’s shrill attack dog on Iran policy, or the hawkish former national security advisor John Bolton. Many within the Beltway thought the evangelical Christian was willing to stroke Trump’s ego and tolerate the arrogant ignorance of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to achieve policy goals cherished by the American right. Those include stirring up a gratuitous confrontation with China, toppling the regime in Tehran, ripping up global treaties and other boilerplate, hardline policies peddled by like-minded ideologues at conservative institutions such as The Heritage Foundation.

However, following revelations that have emerged after Pompeo pushed Trump into firing the State Department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, it turns out those “ideas” and goals were quite possibly a means to an end.

The Trump administration fired Linick on a Friday night, Washington time, apparently unaware that in a global, 24-hour news cycle fuelled by Twitter, it’s no longer possible to bury bad or embarrassing news just by releasing it at the end of the week – especially when the story involves someone as toxic, at home and abroad, as Pompeo.

The leaks began immediately. There had long been stories about how Pompeo had used State Department-funded trips to Kansas to promote a possible Senatorial run, but now came stories about Pompeo’s opulence: they included his allegedly using State Department security and other officials to run personal errands, such as picking up Chinese food or dry cleaning, and taking the Pompeos’ dog, Sherman, to the hairdresser.

Trump defended Pompeo, saying that perhaps he was too “busy” to do his own personal chores and therefore had to use taxpayer-funded government officials as his personal valets. “Maybe he’s negotiating with Kim Jong-un, OK, about nuclear weapons,” he said.

Then came revelations that Pompeo had perhaps become ruffled after learning that Linick was investigating him for a series of exclusive parties he was holding. His so-called “Madison dinners” used taxpayer resources to build up his own private network among a narrow band of far-right oligarchs, celebrities and politicians.

To many diplomats in the US and abroad who have worried that Pompeo would gin up another war in the Middle East, or foment a crisis with China, the dinners must come as a relief. They suggest that maybe Pompeo was no maniacal ideologue but a typically ambitious and crassly corrupt fixture in the Trump kakistocracy, unable or unwilling to distinguish between his personal interests and those of the public.

In many ways, though, the worst of Pompeo’s recently revealed alleged misdeeds was the news that he was being probed for allegedly violating US law by fast-tracking billions of dollars in arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the objections of elected officials.

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers wanted to review the sales in light of the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of agents from the court of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and alleged Saudi war crimes in Yemen. But Pompeo, it emerged, had short-circuited the normal review process for such weaponry by using a provision that can be invoked in case of dire emergencies.

Despite deep scepticism among lawmakers from both the Republican Party and the Democrats, Pompeo conjured up an imminent threat posed by Iran to justify the fast-tracking of the sales — even though some of the weapons weren’t even due to be delivered within a year.

Most alarming is the possibility that Pompeo may have sided with a controversial foreign power, with whom he frequently speaks, to circumvent his own country’s elected officials and undermine its democratic processes.

Given what we know about Trump and his open collusion with Russia to undermine American elections, Pompeo’s favour to Prince Mohammed suggests he has always been the perfect fit for this administration. But it also highlights the deep threat that such banal figures pose to democratic norms.

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