Mike Pompeo has long been considered one of Donald Trump’s most loyal allies.
The former six-year House member from Kansas left no daylight between himself and the former president in the four years he served in his administration, first as CIA director and then as secretary of state. Despite his hawkish outlook on international affairs, Pompeo trumpeted an "America First" foreign policy and vocally defended Trump during his first impeachment trial and, later, in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 riot.
But in recent weeks, Pompeo, who is eyeing a White House run in 2024, has demonstrated a newfound willingness to break with Trump, who is considering a comeback bid.
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Their split was on full public display recently when Pompeo took a shot at Dr. Mehmet Oz, the candidate Trump has endorsed in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary, over his ties to Turkey, a NATO ally that has grown increasingly friendly with Russia. The winner of the Tuesday primary will face off in a general election that could very well decide which party controls the Senate come November.
Pompeo is backing Oz’s rival, David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive whose campaign spent weeks questioning the celebrity doctor’s allegiance to the United States because of his dual citizenship with Turkey. Oz, who was born in Ohio, has said he would renounce his Turkish citizenship if elected to the Senate.
Pompeo’s backing of McCormick isn’t, by itself, all that contentious. His endorsement came in February, two months before Trump announced his support for Oz.
And he’s not alone in diverging with the former president. A long list of former Trump officials threw their support behind McCormick before Trump waded into the race, including Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Hope Hicks.
But Pompeo was the only McCormick surrogate with presidential ambitions to go after Trump’s candidate in the race, and his attack notably came just hours before Trump visited western Pennsylvania to campaign for Oz on May 6.
Capitalizing on reports that Oz has financial ties to Turkey, including real estate holdings and an endorsement deal with Turkish Airlines, Pompeo warned in a briefing organized by the McCormick campaign that Oz’s run for Senate poses “national security concerns.”
“Maybe it’s all innocent, maybe it’s all straight up, but we and the people of Pennsylvania and the Americans who he will be representing as one of the 100 members of the United States Senate voting on important national security matters need to understand the scope and depth of his relationship with the Turkish government,” Pompeo said.
When asked why Pompeo took the shot at Oz, political operatives noted to the Washington Examiner Pompeo's close relationship with the McCormick family. The two men graduated from West Point one year apart (Pompeo was first in his class in 1986). And Pompeo worked with McCormick’s wife, Dina Powell, in the Trump administration, where she was deputy national security adviser for strategy. The attack could be an isolated case of Pompeo fighting hard to get an old friend elected.
But if Pompeo is looking to run in 2024, GOP strategist Scott Jennings said his shot at Oz may have been an attempt to call Trump’s judgment into question in a high-visibility race.
Oz isn’t the most beloved of candidates — he was reportedly booed by some rallygoers when Trump visited the state — and many Pennsylvania Republicans questioned Trump’s endorsement in the days after he made it, arguing that Oz isn’t a true conservative. If Pompeo convinces voters that Trump's candidate is a liability, it could weaken his hold over the GOP.
“If you believe the idea that a Pompeo, or anyone else for that matter, would run against Trump, they’re going to need to put some distance between Trump and his base, between him and the Republicans, between him and the conservatives,” Jennings told the Washington Examiner. “And this would be one of those examples where they could potentially do it. It’s probably not enough to get somebody totally over the line, but it’s certainly a shrimp on the barbie, if you will, in making that argument.”
Jennings said Pompeo will be looking for other opportunities to garner headlines and stay relevant as he crisscrosses the country to support his favored candidates in the midterm elections.
That includes some candidates Trump is also supporting. Pompeo visited Nevada last week, for example, to campaign for Adam Laxalt, the former president’s pick in the state’s GOP Senate primary.
But breaking with Trump in key states such as Pennsylvania could pay dividends down the road should Pompeo actually mount a run in 2024.
“If you just go in and endorse every candidate that Trump does, all those folks are beholden to Trump, not you,” Jennings said. “And if you go in and endorse someone separate and they win, then you’ve got a friend there who’d probably help you organizationally, maybe, in the future.”
The attacks also pose some risks. If Trump doesn’t run for president, Pompeo will likely join a crowded Republican field vying for the GOP nomination, and Trump’s endorsement, in 2024.
If Pompeo hopes to have a shot at inheriting Trump’s base, he’ll need to stay in the good graces of the former president. For this reason, Republican strategist John Feehery told the Washington Examiner he doesn’t expect Pompeo will take more than “baby steps” away from Trump until the former president makes a decision on 2024.
A fuller break with Trump might entail Pompeo criticizing him directly or drawing a contrast between his policy platform and that of the former president.
Such a confrontation would needlessly provoke a “bruising fight” with Trump, Feehery said, adding, “Why poke a bear that’s still sleeping?”
Pompeo’s attacks on Oz haven’t gone unnoticed in Trumpworld. Richard Grenell, the former acting director of national intelligence under Trump, called it “un-American” to question the allegiance of first-generation Americans like Oz.
The former president’s son Donald Trump Jr. responded to the controversy more pointedly on Friday. When asked if the attacks on Oz indicated Pompeo will run against Trump in 2024, he said Pompeo should be “smart enough” to know he shouldn’t run against his father.
Polls consistently show Trump dominating the GOP field in a hypothetical 2024 matchup. A March poll from Morning Consult showed Trump getting the support of 56% of Republicans, compared to 13% for the next highest candidate, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Pompeo failed to garner support in the survey.
An informal straw poll conducted at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February yielded similar results: Trump placed first with 59% support, followed by Desantis with 28% and Pompeo in third with 2%.
For months, Pompeo has stoked speculation about a 2024 run with his repeated trips to early primary and caucus states such as New Hampshire and Iowa. When asked by reporters about his White House ambitions, Pompeo doesn’t rule out a bid.
His strongest statement yet on 2024 came a few weeks ago when he hinted that his decision won’t hinge on whether Trump runs or not, which opened the door to further speculation that he may be preparing for a Trump challenge.
"The Pompeos have always used the simple fact of, do you believe this is the moment where you think you can best serve America? Is this the place you can have the most impact? That will be how we make our decision in the end," Pompeo told Fox News in April.
It remains to be seen how Pompeo’s remarks will affect his standing with Trump. The former president, believing that he won DeSantis the governorship in Florida with his endorsement in 2018, reportedly resents that DeSantis hasn’t sworn off running in 2024 if Trump decides to enter the race.
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Republicans such as Nikki Haley, who has sought to repair her relationship with Trump after criticizing him in the days following the Jan. 6 riot, have made that pledge.
Despite his attacks on Oz, Pompeo participated in a roundtable as part of Trump’s American Freedom Tour in Austin, Texas, on Saturday, and he’ll be attending another tour stop with the former president in Memphis, Tennessee, on June 18. The tour includes Trump allies ranging from Kimberly Guilfoyle to Dinesh D'Souza. A third stop in Greensboro, North Carolina, posted to the tour website after Pompeo’s remarks, omits any mention of Pompeo.