WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If he becomes U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo would have three assets Rex Tillerson did not: experience in government, the confidence of President Donald Trump, and a defter touch with Congress and the bureaucracy.
But he still would suffer from problems that have afflicted Tillerson, chief among them a boss who has shown little regard for diplomacy and no qualms about undermining his secretary of state with tweets, current and former U.S. officials said.
News media reports, first published by the New York Times, that Trump has a plan to replace his embattled secretary of state with Pompeo, a former U.S. congressman who now heads the Central Intelligence Agency, drew mixed reviews from serving U.S. officials.
Some argued that things at the State Department can hardly get worse than they have been under Tillerson, whose 10-month reign has been marked by an exodus of top diplomats, deep dismay at planned 30 percent budget cuts, and conflicts with Trump.
“Anybody could play the hand he’s been dealt better than Tillerson,” said one U.S. official on condition of anonymity, saying things can only get better.
But others argued that any new secretary of state would face the same obstacles as Tillerson, who was undercut this year when Trump told his chief diplomat to stop “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea.
“This is a hellish environment for a secretary of state,” said one State Department official on condition of anonymity.
It was not clear whether Trump plans to throw Tillerson, who in October reportedly called the president a “moron,” overboard. Tillerson has not directly addressed whether he made the comment, though his spokeswoman denied it.
Asked on Thursday if he wanted Tillerson to stay, Trump sidestepped the question saying: “He’s here. Rex is here.”
“There are no personnel announcements at this time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders later said in a statement that left Tillerson twisting in the wind.
Trump was alienated by the reported “moron” comment and Tillerson positions that differ from Trump’s on North Korea and the Gulf standoff between Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations, said another senior official.
Tillerson has embittered many in the State Department by embracing the planned budget cut, failing to get top officials into key diplomatic jobs, relying on a handful of aides and keeping his distance from career diplomats.
If Trump went with Pompeo, he would tap a former Army armor officer and Harvard Law School graduate who was in his fourth term representing a Kansas district in Congress when he was chosen to lead the CIA, where officials say he has enjoyed a less hostile relationship with career spies than Tillerson has had with career diplomats.
While some intelligence officers say Pompeo tends to tell the president what he wants to hear rather than giving him their assessments, others say they have been impressed by his intellect, his willingness to listen and his advocacy of more robust covert operations.
Current and former officials said Pompeo was likely to get along better with Congress and with the White House, not least because of his conservative bent.
However, they said Pompeo would need to resist the planned budget cuts and find a way to grapple with Trump’s tweets.
“If the president undercuts what he is trying to achieve diplomatically, convinces people that whatever you agree to with the secretary of state will be overturned by the president ... then he is basically neutered,” said Richard Boucher, a former top U.S. diplomat who now teaches at Brown University.
“So the question is not whether Pompeo can do the job but whether the president is going to let Pompeo do the job.”
Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by John Walcott and Jonathan Oatis