Mike Pompeo, a Republican congressman from Kansas and Donald Trump’s pick to run the CIA, is no stranger to Russian intrigue.
After graduating first in his class from West Point in 1986, he headed to Europe. There, according to his official bio, he served as a cavalry officer, “patrolling the Iron Curtain before the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
The situation Pompeo now faces as Trump’s CIA nominee would test the savviest politician: If confirmed, he will go to work for a president who is openly feuding with the agency he’s preparing to run.
Since his election to Congress six years ago, Pompeo has carved a reputation for taking hard-line positions.
On C-SPAN in February, he spoke in harsh terms about former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, saying, “He should be brought back from Russia and given due process. And I think the proper outcome would be, that he would be given the death sentence.”
Then there’s Iran and the nuclear deal.
The current CIA director, John Brennan, recently told the BBC that tearing up that deal would be “the height of folly,” saying: “I think it would be disastrous, it really would. For one administration to tear up an agreement that a previous administration made would be almost unprecedented.”
But the day before his CIA nomination was publicly announced, Pompeo tweeted, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal.”
Then there’s Benghazi. During hearings last year investigating the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, Pompeo, a Harvard-trained lawyer, grilled Hillary Clinton about what contact information Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died in the attack, had for her. Even after the congressional investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton, Pompeo and another Republican wrote their own 48-page addendum to the official report, alleging a cover-up and harshly criticizing Clinton.
So how might Pompeo handle the leap from the partisan knife fights of Capitol Hill to the challenge of running an agency that is supposed to operate above the political fray?
Jane Harman, who spent 18 years representing California in Congress and served as the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, says Pompeo will have to change roles.
“He’s been in the politician role. Now he’s going to be in the speak truth to power role,” says Harman, currently head of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “He should be asked about his views in confirmation hearings. I’m sure he will be. You know, among other things — the head of the CIA has to go dark.”
In other words, he has to stay out of the headlines. But that is not where the CIA currently finds itself. Three Senate committees now say they will investigate Russian cyber-hacks and why the CIA has concluded the motive for them was to elect Trump, Pompeo’s soon-to-be boss.
“This is not a good situation for a CIA director to inherit,” says John McLaughlin, former acting director of the agency. “On the other hand, welcome to the CIA director’s world. A CIA director is almost always dealing with some sort of controversy. This one’s bigger than the average one. And it comes on top of all the other things he’s going to have to do.”
Those challenges include unraveling the war in Syria or destroying ISIS.
“Anyone moving from Capitol Hill to CIA is crossing a sort of Rubicon,” McLaughlin says, “because the mission of the agency is to look at events in the world dispassionately. I would say, even clinically. And then to step back, and let the policymakers decide what they wish to do with that.”
There are hints that Pompeo may already be beginning that transition, taking steps toward going dark in preparation for his confirmation hearing next month. He’s laid low since being nominated, and not emerged for a single interview.
But this past weekend, as the controversy over the CIA and Russia erupted into a full-blown political and media frenzy, Pompeo was tweeting — about a Santa’s Village. He’s still a Kansas congressman, and the actress Kirstie Alley has built a snowy tableau in the front yard of her Wichita house.
“Looks great, @kirstiealley!” wrote Pompeo. He hasn’t tweeted since.