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Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Marks A Year On The Job At State Department


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is marking a year on the job speaking to employees about what he calls the ethos of the agency. Pompeo took over a State Department that was reeling from budget cuts and a hiring freeze, and Pompeo promised to restore its swagger. NPR's Michele Kelemen takes a look.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: State Department employees, including a new class of diplomats, were greeted with music in the main lobby and a speech by the secretary, who unveiled a massive new billboard with a mission statement.


MIKE POMPEO: An inspirational, aspirational and unifying statement captures the attitude that I hope will become part of the State Department DNA. And so without further ado, I'd like to unveil it here.


KELEMEN: The statement begins, I am a champion of American diplomacy, and it speaks about professionalism and respect.


POMPEO: It's about disagreeing without being uncivil and building up our institution, not tearing it down.

KELEMEN: With journalists, Secretary Pompeo can be combative, dismissing many questions as, quote, "ridiculous" or just wrong. He once accused members of Congress of caterwauling about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and in Cairo, he gave a speech blasting President Obama for misreading the Middle East.


POMPEO: It was here, here in this city, that another American stood before you. He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from an ideology. He told you that 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East.

KELEMEN: Former State Department official Aaron David Miller was stunned to hear Pompeo criticize a U.S. president in Cairo while praising Egypt's hard-line leader.

AARON DAVID MILLER: That's highly unusual, idiosyncratic and, frankly, I would argue, very destructive.

KELEMEN: Miller advised six secretaries of state and says, usually, partisan politics are set aside as America's top diplomat travels the world.

MILLER: I think that, clearly, in the partisan, polarized, dysfunctional world in which we live, has completely broken down. And I think Mike Pompeo probably emerges as the most partisan secretary of state.

KELEMEN: He says Pompeo has done little to smooth over relations in Europe. Take the speech the secretary gave last year in Brussels, where he criticized just about every international institution, from the European Union and the United Nations to the International Criminal Court.


POMPEO: Sometimes it's not popular to buck the status quo, to call out that which we all see but sometimes refuse to speak about.

KELEMEN: Pompeo calls this principled realism; Miller argues that this my-way-or-the-highway approach is no way to conduct diplomacy. The mood at the State Department, though, has improved under Pompeo. The secretary gets together with employees in his Meet with Mike sessions, and he lifted a hiring freeze imposed by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson. That has made some difference, says retiring diplomat Piper Campbell.

PIPER CAMPBELL: The State Department's out of the ICU but is still in the hospital. We're still suffering from highly ineffective policy processes, chaotic decision-making. There is a feeling in the building that there are important voices, important perspectives that are not being fully aired.

KELEMEN: That's one reason she's leaving the department after three decades. Her last day was today, so she stopped by to hear Pompeo talk about the department's ethos.

CAMPBELL: The presentation and the emphasis may be something new, but the substance is absolutely the heart of what foreign service officers believe.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHVRCHES' "THE MOTHER WE SHARE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.