Several members of Pompeo's core team do offer strong managerial skills from business careers that could help Pompeo run a department of 75,000 employees worldwide, however. Pompeo apparently trusts this core group enough that he's not planning to ...
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West Point. Harvard. Kansas.
Nearly four months into the job, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has built an inner circle heavy on loyalists who share key parts of his life experience — but who lack experience with diplomacy and foreign policy.
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Several members of Pompeo’s core team do offer strong managerial skills from business careers that could help Pompeo run a department of 75,000 employees worldwide, however. Pompeo apparently trusts this core group enough that he’s not planning to name an official chief of staff.
Pompeo has not excluded diplomatic veterans from his orbit: one senior adviser is a career diplomat with nearly four decades of Foreign Service experience.
Pompeo’s wife, Susan, meanwhile, is likely to take a visible role in reaching out to the families of U.S. diplomats and presenting a softer side of the couple—although her presence has already raised eyebrows on at least one occasion.
Two of Pompeo’s top advisers check three key biographical boxes. Ulrich Brechbuhl and Brian Bulatao were members of his 1986 class at West Point and, like him, served in the U.S. Army. Both men also earned degrees from Harvard Business School. (Pompeo attended the law school.) Both also helped Pompeo found Thayer Aerospace, a specialized machining firm in Kansas whose investors reportedly included the Koch brothers.
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David Urban, a friend and fellow 1986 West Point classmate of the three men who also advised the Trump campaign, stressed that the trio work well together because they’d known each for three decades. “These guys have an implicit trust in one another’s ability to not just achieve but exceed,” Urban said.
Soon after taking the helm at state in April, Pompeo named Brechbuhl—who was born in Switzerland and raised in Garden City, New York—to the high-ranking role of counselor. Officials said one of his key responsibilities has been recruiting people to fill the many leadership slots at state left vacant under Tillerson.
Brechbuhl has helped run several businesses and worked at the consulting firm Bain and Company. He speaks French, German and Swiss-German. In a statement to POLITICO, a State Department spokesperson said he “provides strategic guidance to the secretary on foreign policy” and “conducts special diplomatic assignments as directed by the secretary,” but did not elaborate further.
Pompeo was initially President Donald Trump’s CIA director, and that’s when he first brought in Bulatao to the administration. Bulatao served as the agency’s chief operating officer, and sought to infuse the CIA’s bureaucracy with a private sector management style. Now, Pompeo has nominated him for a similar role at state: the undersecretary for management.
Bulatao’s resume includes stints at Dallas-area private investment firms. During his July 18 nomination hearing, Bulatao pledged to ensure state staffers have the facilities and technology they need to "support the critical missions they execute globally.” Bulatao, whose father immigrated to America from the Philippines, also promised to make diversity a priority.
Bulatao is not officially at the State Department yet, but a person close to Pompeo said the two informally stay in touch. A State Department spokesman said that, like all nominees, Bulatao “is availed transition space for consultation as part of the regular confirmation process.”
Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson, was surrounded by an insular group of top aides who infuriated State Department staffers by severely restricting access to the secretary. Pompeo and his inner circle are not facing similar criticism yet.
A person close to Pompeo says he doesn’t plan to name a chief of staff anytime soon—it appears Brechbuhl handles many of those duties. Tillerson’s chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, was widely resented for walling off Tillerson from much of Foggy Bottom.
Susan Pompeo doesn’t have an office at State nor is she a paid employee, the department says. But she has long been an important professional partner to her husband. The person close to Pompeo noted that his wife has been one of his closest advisers for years, especially during his campaigns for Congress.
“They are very much a team, and they always will be,” the person said.
That ruffled some feathers at the CIA, where Susan Pompeo spent what some officials considered an unusual and potentially inappropriate amount of time in the agency’s highly secretive executive suites. CNN, citing unnamed sources, reported that Susan Pompeo helped manage her husband’s calendar, leading to worries that she was acting as an informal gatekeeper for one of the nation’s top intelligence officials. But a CIA spokesman defended Susan Pompeo, saying she had done nothing out of line and that she was involved in “initiatives that specifically make the lives of CIA officers and their families better.”
When the State Department held two ceremonies earlier this month honoring the more than 200 lives lost during the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Mike Pompeo was absent. Some U.S. diplomats were surprised when Susan Pompeo showed up and spoke at one of the gatherings. (Mike Pompeo did issue a tweet and a statement.)
According to one of Susan Pompeo’s online bios, she was “born to a singer and an oilman” and attended Wichita State University. She's held a variety of positions over the years, often focused on charity or public outreach. The person close to Pompeo said outreach to State Department families will likely be a focus of Susan Pompeo’s.
Another important—if lesser-known—adviser to Pompeo is Toni Porter, who served as his chief of protocol at the CIA and also was an aide to Pompeo during most of his six years as a Republican Congressman from Kansas.
Porter’s title now is senior adviser to the secretary of state, a somewhat fuzzy role in which she handles whatever tasks Pompeo asks her to do, including serving as a liaison to others in the department.
Porter served as Pompeo’s district director in Kansas when he served in Congress. The Kansas State graduate’s resume also includes a stint as director of government relations for the Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce.
For the important role of media management, Pompeo relies heavily on the department’s official spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, a former Fox News host hired last year by Tillerson, who never fully gave her his trust, officials say.
By all accounts, Pompeo treats Nauert as a valued member of his team—though it’s not clear how long she will remain at state: Nauert, who has a generally friendly relationship with reporters despite frustration that the State Department has scaled back the frequency of its press briefings, has been mentioned as a possible White House press secretary should Sarah Huckabee Sanders leave that job.
From the start, Pompeo has repeatedly emphasized to the department’s employees that he values their advice and their service. The message carried an implicit rebuke of the way Tillerson often sidelined and ignored career staffers.
But it wasn’t until Pompeo named Michael McKinley as a senior adviser that many U.S. diplomats breathed a sigh of relief.
McKinley is a senior Foreign Service officer who most recently served as the U.S. ambassador to Brazil. Venezuelan-born and Oxford-educated, McKinley has held U.S. diplomatic posts in Afghanistan and to the European Union in Brussels. He’s also served in the State Department’s bureau that helps refugees.
McKinley’s role has been described as “keeping Pompeo connected to the career service,” one U.S. diplomat told POLITICO. He also serves as a sounding board on policy issues, effectively taking on some of the duties of the vacant chief of staff slot.
Pompeo also helped select David Hale, another senior Foreign Service officer, to serve in the key role of undersecretary for political affairs. The Georgetown-educated Hale is the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, the latest in a long string of posts. Trump announced his nomination in July.
Three other aides play key roles for Pompeo on issues ranging from the press to Iran.
As deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan — who assumed the job last year — often covers meetings and events when Pompeo is unavailable. It’s difficult to tell how much influence Sullivan has on policy given that he was brought on by Tillerson, but people who have dealt with him say he’s determined to make sure Pompeo has proper information to make decisions.
Another important but little-known player is Lisa Kenna, a career Foreign Service officer who serves as the department’s executive secretary, a role that involves coordinating state’s activities with the White House and other agencies. Kenna has also worked in the Department of Defense and the National Security Council; she was an executive assistant to former Secretary of State John Kerry.
To the surprise of many state staffers, Pompeo has also kept on Brian Hook, who until recently headed the secretary’s Policy Planning Staff. Hook, who held multiple posts in the George W. Bush administration, was brought back to state by Tillerson.
Hook upset many career staffers by largely shutting them out when he served Tillerson; there also are lingering questions about the role he played in the alleged mistreatment of a career Civil Service officer who specialized in Iran.
But Pompeo appears to value Hook’s advice, particularly on how to deal with Iran. In mid-August, he named Hook as special representative for Iran. Hook will oversee a range of activities related to the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Iran’s Islamist government, including the implementation of sanctions.
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