LAS VEGAS — Mike Pompeo is moving toward a White House bid, test-driving lines of attack against the front-runner, his old boss, former President Donald Trump, as if to see whether he likes how the car handles and wants to drive it off the lot.
Pompeo served in the Trump administration all four years, first as the Central Intelligence Agency director, then secretary of state. During his tenure, the Kansas Republican earned the former president’s trust and acquired a reputation for being his most loyal Cabinet official. But as Pompeo mulls a 2024 campaign that would pit him against Trump for the GOP nomination, he is slowly embracing a new role, that of competitor and nemesis.
“We need leaders who can show the way that conservatives get elected in America, leaders that will fight for them, not for ourselves or our own egos, but for them,” Pompeo said in a prepared speech to a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition. The group’s annual conference attracted a host of the party’s presidential contenders, including Trump officials-turned-opponents former Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence.
“This is serious business,” Pompeo said later in his remarks. “But we need not be angry. We need not be mean. We need not call names.”
In these instances, Pompeo did not name-check Trump, nor did he do so in a couple of pointed tweets directed at the former president posted after the Nov. 15 launch of his 2024 presidential bid. But as in the former secretary of state’s choice of words and phrases on Twitter, his premeditated remarks before Republican Jewish Coalition activists and donors — “egos” and “we need not call names” — had an obvious target in mind.
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Pompeo has had a varied relationship with Trump.
In the 2016 primary, then a Kansas congressman, Pompeo was backing Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). In that capacity, he was a sharp Trump critic, taking on the real estate mogul in Fox News appearances. Speaking on Rubio’s behalf in advance of Kansas’s presidential nominating caucuses, Pompeo compared Trump to outgoing President Barack Obama, warning Trump was a threat to the Constitution. “We don’t need four more years of that.”
Pompeo, 58, proceeded to forge a close professional bond with Trump. In an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2021, soon after the 45th president left office, Pompeo’s son, Nick Pompeo, introduced his father as the “first ‘America first’ secretary of state,” a reference to one of Trump’s favorite slogans. Now, Pompeo is veering back toward those early days of combative opposition to Trump.
However, in an interview with the Washington Examiner prior to his address to the Republican Jewish Coalition on Friday evening to a packed and attentive convention center ballroom along the Las Vegas Strip, Pompeo downplayed arising political differences with Trump. In doing so, the former secretary of state revealed a prudent retired Army captain who is probing — surveying but not yet comfortable with, or sold on — going to war against Trump.
“When I talked about whether I’m thinking about running, it will be because I believe in this country — I believe we’ve still got 250 good years in front of us. But we’ve got to be focused on the things that really matter,” Pompeo said. “If I think I’m the person that can actually deliver that, I’m going to run no matter who does, who else decides to get in the race.”
“The president has said he’s running — that’s great,” Pompeo added. “In the end, whether he’s the right person or I’m the right person, or [someone else] is the right person, well, that will be up to the people of the United States, and I think it will be a worthy conversation to have.”
Speaking of “things that really matter,” Trump has come under fire from top Republicans for focusing on things they say don’t.
The former president has spent two years complaining about his loss to President Joe Biden, an election he claims was stolen. After the FBI in August executed a search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s residence and private social club in Palm Beach, Florida, the former president began arguing he was the victim of another witch hunt. Combined with Trump’s questionable endorsements in crucial GOP primaries, many Republicans believe he is the reason the party underperformed in the midterm elections.
Coming on the heels of a blue wave in the 2018 elections and the loss of the Senate and the White House in 2020, a reassessment of Trump is underway inside the party, although he retains a strong base of support among GOP voters.
Still, some in the grassroots, and many Republican figures, are beginning, gingerly, to confront the roadblocks to rebuilding posed by the former president and broach sidelining him for fresh leadership. They are concerned Trump cannot win the 2024 general election and would risk the viability of the entire ticket if he is the nominee. Pompeo appears to be among this group of Republicans.
In comments to the Washington Examiner and later in his speech to Republican Jewish Coalition members, the former secretary of state recast his image as the loyal Trump soldier, saying his fidelity was never to Trump at all. “This loyalty, this work that we must do together, is not to a person,” Pompeo said in his address. “This loyalty that I executed, alongside Vice President Pence for four years, was to our nation.”
“I did, every day, everything that I could to honor and be loyal to the oath that I took when I raised my right hand to defend the country,” he added. “It wasn’t a loyalty to a person or a party or faction. It was to you and the promises that we had made to the United States of America.”