Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 | 2 a.m.
There’s no way Mike Pompeo actually venerates Donald Trump. I doubt he even likes the president much.
Pompeo graduated first in his class at West Point decades ago, a feat that suggests enormous reserves of discipline, a profound respect for tradition and a talent for self-effacement when the circumstances warrant it. Trump possesses none of those qualities.
Pompeo is an evangelical Christian, steeped in the very dictums that Trump has spent a lifetime mocking with both his words and his deeds. And Pompeo has long believed in the importance of American military intervention abroad, the kind of activist role that Trump railed against during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
In fact, Pompeo, who was then a congressman from Kansas, supported Marco Rubio — and publicly praised him while disparaging Trump, just before the state’s Republican caucus in March 2016. As Susan Glasser of The New Yorker recalled in an excellent recent profile of Pompeo, he sounded an alarm that Trump would be “an authoritarian president who ignored our Constitution.” He urged Republicans to come to their senses and resist the lure of the surging Trump campaign. “It’s time,” he said, “to turn down the lights on the circus.”
But the lights continued to burn bright, so Pompeo just put on a clown suit, put away his ethics and finagled a big role under the Big Top.
He had plenty of company in that transformation. It’s the wonder of the Trump era and one of the saddest, scariest themes of the impeachment inquiry so far: the teeming crowd of sellouts and suck-ups who eagerly traded principle for position and are in some cases doubling and tripling down on that transaction, to a point where it’s fair to ask if there was ever much principle to begin with.
I’m looking at you, Sen. Lindsey Graham, who somehow decided that Trump was the new John McCain, which is like deeming tripe the new tenderloin. Hell, I’m looking at most of the Republicans in the Senate. I’m not so much looking at Attorney General William Barr, odious as his behavior has been, because it’s clear in retrospect that he never made much of a pretense of rectitude, at least not in the context of Trump. He also wasn’t on record trashing Trump, not the way Pompeo and Graham and so many others who now dutifully echo him and gaze beatifically at him were. They must have broken necks from their moral whiplash. Barr’s neck supports that big head of his just fine.
Pompeo, who first signed on as Trump’s CIA director and then flattered his way to secretary of state, is a paragon of these lackeys-come-lately, and he’s especially vivid proof of how easily and completely the lure of power can overwhelm any call to conscience.
He raised his hand for secretary of state after he’d seen his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, humiliated by Trump and fired by tweet. This was more than a year into Trump’s presidency, by which point the rationalizations of other supposedly serious conservatives who took top administration jobs no longer held water. It was clear that Trump wasn’t just a few artful nudges away from proper presidential bearing. He couldn’t be lifted up because he was too busy cruelly dragging everyone else down.
But Pompeo had a heady shot at a vaunted job that almost surely wasn’t going to come his way any other time. So he lunged for it, then demonstrated with his obsequiousness that doing good and doing right were never high on the agenda.
He wrote an op-ed article that essentially broke with his fellow Republicans to promote Trump’s view that Saudi Arabia’s butchery of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi shouldn’t give anyone pause. What are a few severed body parts among allies?
He recalled the ambassador to Ukraine just to please the president and his babbling Beelzebub, Rudy Giuliani. He listened mutely to that July 25 phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, decided to ignore what he heard and then claimed — until a few days ago — that he was utterly in the dark about any pressure on Ukraine to kneecap Joe Biden.
Had he spoken up or pushed back, he would have risked ending up on the outside, among the swelling Trump administration diaspora. He preferred the inside, with its glossier trappings and cushier thrones. He and his wife were diplomatic royalty, jetting around the world. He could bear the ache of a tongue full of tooth marks. Better to be a wretched part of history than no part at all.
The tale sounds familiar because it is. It’s the story of Faust, who sold his soul for renown, then endured the ugliness of that deal. It’s also the story of too many of Trump’s Republican enablers to count. Sure, many of them decided to prop and pretty him up, a man whose unfitness for the Oval Office was never really in doubt, out of tribal loyalty, a force far too potent in American politics today. But some rushed to him because that’s where the riches were, at least metaphorically. That’s where the fame was.
And they weren’t simply burying the hatchet with a politician who hadn’t been their preferred candidate or whose positions differed from theirs only slightly. They were dismantling the chain saw that they’d wielded in the face of a fraud whose conduct, along with some of his proposals, was antithetical to who they claimed to be.
Few people remember anymore, but just years before she became the dark empress of “alternative facts,” Kellyanne Conway was a respected, reasonably mainstream, uncontroversial Republican pollster and strategist. Just months before she joined Team Trump, she correctly labeled him “vulgar,” said he wasn’t presidential, called him a liar and demanded his tax returns. Then he offered her the lofty job of managing his presidential campaign — and all the television airtime that came with it — and she turned herself into a kowtowing cartoon. She’ll never be seen the same way again. Was the ride really worth it?
And what was Mick Mulvaney thinking when he agreed to be Trump’s third chief of staff, having witnessed the tortures of chiefs Nos. 1 and 2? Before Trump was elected, Mulvaney called him and Hillary Clinton “two of the most flawed human beings running for president in the history of the country,” and lest you think Trump was merely collateral damage in her disparagement, Mulvaney separately called Trump “a terrible human being.” Now he calls him boss. Amazing how revulsion crumbles when relevance is in the equation.
Graham was oddly and briefly honest about this in an interview with The Times’ Mark Leibovich, framing his kinship with Trump, whom he once called “the world’s biggest jackass,” as part of his career-long quest “to try to be relevant.” This quest now involves the insistence that Trump, rather than abusing the presidency to dig up imagined dirt on a political rival, is the victim of some setup.
You can hear Graham’s version as predictably loopy illogic from a senator up for re-election next year in the deep-red state of South Carolina, but it’s more than that. It’s the fee for being able to get the president on the phone, for being invited to play golf with him, for feeling the rush of access, for getting to crow about your perch at the epicenter of the action. He and Pompeo will have insider anecdotes to last the rest of their lives. They’ll need just as long to convince themselves that they didn’t overpay.
Frank Bruni is a columnist for The New York Times.