Trump’s shadow secretary of defense

Pompeo’s omnipresence illustrates the extraordinary influence he wields in Trump’s inner circle three years into the Republican president’s tenure.

His prestige within the administration has been enhanced by multiple leadership changes at the Pentagon and National Security Council. It has continued despite questions about his role in the Ukraine scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment, and amid questions about his political aspirations. And it has raised eyebrows at the Defense Department, which is led by Mark Esper, a former West Point classmate of Pompeo’s who has kept a relatively low profile in his six months on the job.

Pompeo is “first among equals in the national security team, and others defer to him,” said Tom Wright, a Brookings Institution scholar who has been tracking the Trump team’s dynamics. “He doesn’t have a competing center of power.”

And he popped up on Monday to clarify that U.S. troops were not planning to leave Iraq, despite a letter suggesting otherwise from an American brigadier general.

But Esper, who served in the 101st Airborne Division during the first Gulf War, has largely vanished from sight otherwise.

Given the dangerous situation in the Middle East now, his absence has led to griping among some military reporters, who’ve also long complained about the dearth of press briefings at the Pentagon.

Former military officials and others who track the Defense Department say that Esper appears to have made the calculation that it’s best to stay behind the scenes in an administration where few people have Trump’s ear, and where anything you say could be easily undermined by a presidential tweet moments later.

Plus, Esper, a former Capitol Hill staffer and lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon, took over as defense secretary with a thinner executive branch resume than many who’ve held the position in the past. And while he can point to his time as an infantry officer and at West Point, some Pentagon watchers wonder if even that is helping Pompeo overshadow him.

Several people from the 1986 West Point class hold key administration positions. Because he was first in that class, Pentagon observers say it’s possible that others from the 1986 crew at West Point take a back seat to Pompeo.

A senior Trump administration official confirmed that it was the White House that requested Pompeo appear on the Sunday shows. Given that Pompeo is passionate about the issue of Iran — U.S. diplomats say he gets deep into the weeds on the topic — he requires little prep work.

But the latest Iran crisis isn’t the first time Pompeo’s actions have startled Pentagon officials.

On June 18, in an odd move for a secretary of State, Pompeo traveled to Florida to meet with leaders of U.S. Central Command and Special Operations command. The meetings focused in part on Iran, which the U.S. was accusing of attacking international oil tankers.

While he was in Florida, some in the Washington foreign policy establishment wondered if he was auditioning to be the next secretary of defense. (Pompeo’s first job with Trump was as CIA director.)

Even at the State Department, Pompeo, who served as an Army cavalry officer after West Point, often takes a military-style approach. He refers to his diplomats’ having a “mission set” and tells his “team” to “keep crushing it.”

People who know him say his military training appears to influence his willingness to defend Trump in public and implement whatever the president – the commander-in-chief – wants.

In his first major address to his workforce after he became secretary of State in 2018, Pompeo raised the military concept of “commander’s intent” in pledging to craft a vision for what he wanted to achieve. The concept describes the end-state a commander seeks so that his troops can do what they need to get there.

Some in the military world downplayed questions about whether, in staying below the radar, Esper and the Pentagon were ceding anything to Pompeo.

“Isn’t this more of a restoration of the way the system is supposed to work?” he asked.

Pompeo’s willingness to be so public also might have to do with politics as much as policy.

The former Kansas congressman is believed to have ambitions to run for office again someday, though the latest indications are that he won’t make a run for the Senate this year. Republicans view him as a potential White House contender in 2024. Getting face-time on national television helps, especially when he can sound tough on a country loathed by many in the GOP base.

Also unusually for a secretary of State, Pompeo often takes indirect partisan shots.