Washington (AFP) – Former CIA director Mike Pompeo was sworn in as America’s top diplomat Thursday after a bruising battle over his hardliner image, and immediately embarked on a mission to Europe and the Middle East with a strong declaration of support from President Donald Trump.
Pompeo overcame stiff opposition in the Senate from Democrats who warned he would add fuel to Trump’s aggressive foreign policy.
But ultimately, the 54-year-old West Point graduate and former congressman beat back critics, easily winning Senate confirmation in a 57-42 vote.
Just over one hour later, he was sworn in as secretary of state by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito at the White House.
The State Department immediately announced Pompeo would lead the US delegation to NATO foreign minister talks in Brussels on Friday, and follow that with stops in Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, stops chosen to reflect their “importance as key allies and partners in the region,” the department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
– Trump: ‘He has my trust’ –
“Having a patriot of Mike’s immense talent, energy and intellect leading the Department of State will be an incredible asset for our country at this critical time in history,” Trump said in a statement.
“He will always put the interests of America first. He has my trust. He has my support.”
After the swearing-in ceremony, Pompeo said he was “completely humbled by the responsibility” of his new post.
“I’m looking forward to serving the American people and getting to work right away,” he added.
Pompeo replaces Rex Tillerson, the former oil executive Trump fired in March after a year of tensions with the White House over policy and turmoil in the State Department, where his cutbacks and aloofness alienated staff and left the body deeply demoralized.
But where Tillerson was seen as a voice of moderation in the Trump administration, Pompeo is viewed as a hawk who could combine with new White House National Security Advisor John Bolton to back Trump’s aggressive posturing on the world stage.
– Promises diplomacy, ‘swagger’ –
In a bruising fight against his appointment, Democrats accused Pompeo as too bellicose and harboring anti-Muslim and homophobic sentiments.
During his confirmation hearing at the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Pompeo rejected those accusations.
He insisted his focus will be on diplomatic solutions to problems, while pledging to bring “swagger once again” to the State Department.
“One of the many values of robust diplomacy is that it increases our chances of solving problems peacefully, without ever firing a shot,” Pompeo said.
– Secret North Korea trip –
Thursday’s move to the state department marks the high point so far in the career of the ambitious Pompeo, who some say has his eyes on the White House.
He graduated first in his class at the elite US Military Academy at West Point, and later earned a law degree from Harvard.
Pompeo served four terms as a Republican congressman from Kansas before Trump tapped him to head the Central Intelligence Agency last year.
There, he promised a more “vicious” intelligence operation, making unapologetically menacing statements toward North Korea and Iran.
He also earned Trump’s ear in regular intelligence briefings at the White House, accommodating Trump’s desire for simplified, visual presentations rather than detailed written assessments of the world’s security dangers.
Behind the scenes, he made numerous trips abroad to meet foreign political and security leaders, especially in the Middle East.
He also took the lead in creating a dialogue with North Korea as Pyongyang demonstrated its theoretical ability to strike the United States with a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile.
In late March, Pompeo secretly traveled to Pyongyang, where he met with Kim to discuss what could become a historic summit between the two countries possibly as early as in May.
The White House released pictures from their meeting Thursday, attesting to Pompeo’s central role in relations with North Korea.
That served to underscore that he could easily slip into the diplomatic driver’s seat as soon as he was sworn in.
US Ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison said she was “pleased that he will be leading the delegation” to the NATO meeting. “His efforts to come to Brussels tonight shows America’s commitment to NATO and our Allies and Partners,” she said.