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Pompeo's Possible Political Ambitions


A key national security figure was missing from the White House photo of the Situation Room during last weekend's military operation in Syria. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was not in Washington at the time. He was in Kansas fueling speculation about his political ambitions there. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The first question Pompeo was asked on "Fox & Friends" Monday was whether it was hard for him to be so far away when President Trump was watching the U.S. military operation against the founder of ISIS.


MIKE POMPEO: I would love to have been there, but I was in close touch with the leaders who were in there. State Department was fully engaged making sure we were delivering the things that we needed to for what was an amazing military operation that night.

KELEMEN: Pompeo was still in Kansas where he had taken part in a workforce development event with the president's daughter and adviser, Ivanka Trump. The visit prompted the editorial board of The Kansas City Star to write, quote, "if Pompeo is running to replace retiring U.S. Senator Pat Roberts, then he should quit his rather important day job to do that." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been clear since July that he wants Pompeo in that race.


MITCH MCCONNELL: I've said several times - I'm not sure the president agrees with this - that I'd love to see the secretary of state run for the Senate in Kansas. But the filing deadline is not till next June.

KELEMEN: Reporters in Kansas often ask him about that, but the student newspaper at Wichita State University tried something new - asking him about presidential ambitions. Pompeo says he wants to give back to his country.


POMPEO: So if the opportunity presented itself where I thought that was the case, I'd certainly think about it.

KELEMEN: Back in his State Department, many diplomats are growing frustrated with Pompeo, who once promised to bring back swagger. A former Bush administration official, David Kramer, says he's hearing from a lot of former colleagues about that.

DAVID KRAMER: Right now, he's still the secretary of state, and so he has a job to do to advance U.S. foreign policy and national security interests. But he also has a job to do to defend the people who work for him.

KELEMEN: Kramer, a Russia expert now at Florida International University, has watched with anger as the White House attacked State Department officials who have been responding to congressional subpoenas in the impeachment inquiry.

KRAMER: Career diplomats who do their job day in and day out who are getting smeared through scurrilous attacks by the president's attorney and the president himself. And it's just not right. And for him not to stand up for the people who work for him is just not right.

KELEMEN: Former career diplomat and two-time ambassador Laura Kennedy says State Department officials have been called Obama holdovers or part of the swamp.

LAURA KENNEDY: Career bureaucrats as if serving your country is somehow an insult rather than a badge of honor.

KELEMEN: Pompeo often talks about, quote, "one team, one mission." But Kennedy worries that he's focused more on politics, which is at odds with a department that prides itself in being nonpartisan. She and others were uncomfortable when the State Department website highlighted Pompeo's recent speech in Nashville with the headline "Being A Christian Leader."

KENNEDY: It just seems, again, to be promoting his beliefs and appealing to, you know, his political base in ways that at a minimum were insensitive and, you know, for some might raise questions about separation of church and state.

KELEMEN: Pompeo seemed to anticipate the pushback even as he made the speech.


POMPEO: I know some people in the media will break out the pitchforks when they hear that I ask God for direction in my work.

KELEMEN: But it played well in Nashville at the American Association of Christian Counselors. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.


Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.