The finale of Mike Pompeo’s reign at the state department has been as controversial and clamorous as the rest of his 32-month tenure, but it is unclear what traces will remain after he has gone.
The last days of Pompeo have been played out in a blizzard of self-congratulatory tweets, at the rate of two dozen a day, as he seeks to write his own first draft of history.
The former Kansas congressman, with evident ambitions for a presidential run in 2024, has accented his claims of success by frequent derogatory references to the previous administration, portrayed as hapless appeasers.
Some of the tweets have been factually incorrect, for example blaming Barack Obama for an arms control treaty that was signed by Ronald Reagan.
Other claims are contradictory, like his insistence the US has restored deterrence against Iran, alongside his allegation that Tehran is a greater threat than ever. On Tuesday, he called Iran “the new Afghanistan”, alleging – without evidence – that it has become al-Qaida’s hub of operations.
While Iran’s economy has been successfully pummelled by sanctions, as Pompeo points out, its stockpile of low-enriched uranium is now more than 12 times greater than it was when Pompeo took up the job of US secretary of state in 2018.
“If the real economic duress US sanctions put on Tehran has increased or least failed to stop the very activities that policy was meant to reverse, it’s a matter of having made an impact without delivering a favourable outcome,” Naysan Rafati, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said.
Similarly, Pompeo argues that Donald Trump’s summits with Kim Jong-un led to a lull in nuclear warhead and long-range missile testing. But he does not mention that Kim has declared an end to that moratorium, and is now set to have a substantially bigger arsenal than when he began meeting Trump.
The portrait Pompeo has painted of Trump’s America has been in dramatic contrast to recent events. Two days after Congress came under an unprecedented violent attack by a mob egged on by Trump, Pompeo blithely tweeted: “Being the greatest country on earth is not just about our incredible economy & our strong military; it’s about the values we project out into the world.”
He also boasted his state department team “did more than any other to build alliances that secured American interests” days before having to cancel his swansong trip to Europe because his counterparts did not want to see him.
The Luxembourg foreign minister signalled he would be unavailable to meet America’s top diplomat, and described Trump’s behaviour as “criminal”. The Belgian foreign minister, Sophie Wilmès, who Pompeo was also supposed to have met on the trip, made clear on Twitter that her government was counting on Joe Biden to restore US unity and stability.
“It is unprecedented for an American secretary of state to be unwelcome at any time, especially at the end of their tenure, in the foreign ministries of our closest allies,” Brett Bruen, who was director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House, said. “It just goes to show how far he has ostracised himself.”
In his would-be victory lap, Pompeo – known for being thin-skinned – has restricted his media interviews to admiring conservative talkshow hosts and has not taken questions after his speeches.
At the headquarters of the state-funded Voice of America (VOA) station on Monday, he berated its journalists for being insufficiently patriotic, even “demeaning America”. He told them “to broadcast that this is the greatest nation the world has ever known”.
When a VOA journalist, Patsy Widakuswara, tried to ask him questions after his address, he walked away, ignoring her. Hours later Widakuswara was demoted from her position covering the White House, to other duties.
Michael Pack, the man installed by Trump and Pompeo at the head of the US Agency for Global Media, which oversees VOA and other federally funded broadcasters, is seeking to entrench his position by making it harder for the incoming administration to sack him, turning the agency’s statutory independence to his advantage. But it is unclear Pack will succeed, having alienated both Democrats and Republicans in Congress with his purges of journalistic and managerial staff.
“I don’t see the new administration having great difficulty in helping him find the exit,” Bruen said.
There are other ways in which Pompeo has sought to impart a final, dramatic yank on the wheel of US foreign policy, with the intention of making it hard for the next administration to change course.
Within his last 10 days, Pompeo has designated Houthi forces in Yemen and Cuba as a terrorist group and a state sponsor of terrorism respectively, although neither poses a direct threat to the US.
The Houthi designation, which aid agencies warn might cause widespread deaths in Yemen by complicating humanitarian aid deliveries, was made without consulting lawmakers or their staff.
“You need to stop fucking lying to Congress,” one staffer told a state department official in a briefing call reported by Foreign Policy, and confirmed to the Guardian by a source familiar with the conversation.
“Like so many other similar briefings we’ve had from this administration, they send these poor people out to defend these ridiculous policies, and they just can’t,” a senior Democratic congressional staffer said.
While at the state department, Pompeo has expended most energy on attempting to drive nails into the coffin of the nuclear agreement major world powers made with Iran in 2015, and from which Trump withdrew in 2018.
That effort has so far been a failure. In response to waves of US sanctions Iran has stopped observing some of the agreed constraints on its nuclear activities, but has signalled it is ready to negotiate re-entry into the agreement with the new administration.
The sanctions and terrorist designations are intended to impose political costs on the Biden team in trying to return to the pre-Trump status quo, based on the assumption that it will be unpopular to be seen to reward America’s adversaries, but it is far from clear whether it will work.
“What he’s doing is creating tough news days for the next administration, but it’s manageable,” the senior Democratic staffer said, predicting the traps that Pompeo has been setting can be cleared away without expending too much political capital. “So much of the damage Trump and Pompeo have done has been through executive actions, so it can be reversed through executive action.”