In February of last year, while interviewing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for this magazine, I asked him about what happened the previous summer during the NATO summit in Brussels. It was widely reported that President Trump threw a fit at the July 12 session, berating German chancellor Angela Merkel about the United States paying more than its fair share. Two sources told me that senior members of the delegation, Pompeo included, feared Trump might pull America out of the alliance entirely. But when I asked Pompeo about the incident, citing the July 12 date in particular, he gave me absolutely nothing. It wasn’t that he demurred, or tried to spin the events of that day. Instead, he made a show of rejecting the question’s premise.
“If I’m remembering the meeting correctly,” he said, “what happened was no different than what happened on July 9, 10, 11, 13 or 14.” As he ticked off each date in a steady, even tone, the message seemed clear: He didn’t just want to be nonresponsive; he wanted me to see just how willful his nonresponse would be.
I thought about that interview again this month, after Pompeo held an instantly infamous news conference. It had been three days since The Associated Press announced that Joe Biden had won the election. Pompeo should have expected that he would get asked about the standoff then roiling the nation: The president was refusing to concede the race and spinning out baseless conspiracy theories about the result. But when the issue was raised by the first reporter to be called on, Rich Edson of Fox News, Pompeo seemed annoyed. Edson asked whether the State Department was “currently preparing to engage with the Biden transition team.” If not, he continued, could that “pose a risk to national security?”
With a frown and a shake of his head, Pompeo brushed aside the question of cooperating with Joe Biden. Instead, he made a declaration: “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
When the sentence was done, he nodded, flashed a quick smile and audibly exhaled through his nose. This gesture was recounted by many as a “chuckle,” but it didn’t quite sound like one; it was more like an amiable snort, which he used as his own transition to some less inflammatory rhetoric: The votes would all be counted. The Constitution would be obeyed. The State Department would do everything possible to assure the success of whoever has been sworn into the office “on Jan. 20, a minute after noon.” He spoke as though he hadn’t just made a flat pronouncement about who that person would be — the person whose chances were shrinking by the hour from slim to none, and who also happened to be his boss.
Almost immediately, the internet erupted with debate over whether Pompeo had been serious. Secretaries of state frequently issue statements to encourage fair and peaceful elections in other countries; Pompeo now seemed to be undermining the legitimacy of America’s own election from the department’s lectern. His echo of Trump’s denialism prompted further speculation about whether the administration’s actions could amount to a “coup.” Some political journalists tried to tone the moment down, claiming that the “chuckle” carried with it some degree of self-awareness, and that Pompeo had been kidding. On the other side were partisans on both wings, as well as foreign news services, who were inclined to take the American secretary of state seriously.
Trump’s win in 2016 adrenalized the career of Pompeo, who was plucked from his Kansas congressional seat to lead the C.I.A. Elected in 2010 with the G.O.P.’s Tea Party class, Pompeo was best known for his aggressive questioning of Hillary Clinton during the Benghazi hearings. Now 56, he is seen as a viable presidential contender, one of a small group of Republicans who could excite the Trumpist base without alienating the traditional G.O.P. establishment. Along with Pompeo, this group includes Tom Cotton, Nikki Haley, Ted Cruz and Mike Pence. The problem for this group is that Trump could himself run for a second term in 2024. As long as he remains in the picture, as a candidate or a self-styled shadow president, those who would claim to be Trump’s heirs will have to reside, at least in part, within the realm of his delusions. It is a place where there is no such thing as defeat, only broken scoreboards.
Rather than coming to terms with Trump’s loss, then, the whole party may, like Pompeo at that lectern, be forced to spend the next four years stuck in the denial phase. No ambitious conservative can afford to oppose Trump’s positions, even when they tip over into magical thinking. Most have avoided recognizing Biden as the president-elect, an omission that would have been unthinkable under previous Republican presidents.
In such a climate, attempting to unify the party, let alone the country, will be a heavy lift. The most a conventional politician can hope to do is communicate multiple messages, in a half-chuckled way that allows disparate constituencies to hear whatever they want to. In an interview on Fox, hours after the news conference, Pompeo repeated his points about vote-counting and the Constitution. When the host asked if he was serious about his transition remark, he avoided answering. Trump himself took notice of Pompeo’s stubborn commitment to living within the ever-changing borders of his boss’s fantasies, retweeting the “second Trump administration” clip with approval that night. The following week, Trump invited Michigan lawmakers to the White House in the clear hope of finding a way to deprive Biden, who won the state, of its 16 electoral votes. Trump was obviously not kidding about overturning the election result. Why should we think Pompeo was?
Given his assurance about a second term, it might seem reasonable for American allies to wonder if Pompeo was representing the whole of the U.S. government or an embittered, departing faction. For the next few weeks, at least, he could still get in the room with heads of state, and he soon departed on a trip to France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Each of the countries he planned to visit had offered its official congratulations to President-elect Biden. Did Pompeo take issue with his counterparts engaging with Biden? “The business of State continues,” replied a senior Department official when asked in a briefing. “We have continuity of government.”
There was no mention of a Biden administration — or another term for Trump. It appeared that Pompeo was willing to meet reality halfway, even if his words had suggested otherwise.