Pompeo Spoke About Handling World Conflicts and an Unpredictable President

September 26, 2023
Mike Pompeo speaking at podium

Mike Pompeo, who served as CIA director and secretary of state under President Donald Trump, speaks to students about the challenges of navigating global conflicts and an unpredictable commander in chief. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

One by one, University of Virginia students formed a line to ask questions of former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who spoke Monday evening at Alumni Hall.

They asked about the war in Ukraine, the qualities of leadership and which Republican candidate Pompeo is pulling for. Then came an oddly specific query:

“Hi, my name is Aly Carbaugh, and I have two questions. What do you think of Brian Carbaugh, and what’s the best thing that you guys did together?”

“Hi, Aly,” Pompeo shot back, grinning.

‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan
‘Inside UVA’ A Podcast Hosted by Jim Ryan

Pompeo, who served a year as President Donald Trump’s CIA director and for the rest of Trump’s term as secretary of state, had warned the crowd there would be some things he couldn’t talk about, and this fifth question of the night skirted close. Aly’s father had served in top posts with Pompeo in the CIA. Pompeo heaped praise on Aly’s father, calling him a “great patriot” and “the best-looking CIA officer I ever met,” which, Pompeo said, didn’t go unnoticed by Pompeo’s wife.

“I can’t tell you the greatest things he did, but it was great,” Pompeo said to laughter. “Tell your dad hi.”

The friendly exchange fit the tone of Pompeo’s talk. He spoke for a breezy 15 minutes to a supportive capacity crowd of 400 and took students’ questions for the rest of the hour. He was jovial, disarming and at times self-deprecating. He defended the Trump administration’s most controversial decisions while acknowledging the chaos that “a New York real estate guy” brought to the Oval Office.

“Whenever I am introduced as the 70th secretary of state, it always reminds me that Donald Trump was the 45th president, so there is a lot more turnover in my gig than in his,” Pompeo said as the crowd chuckled. “You laugh, but I checked my phone every morning to make sure he didn’t tweet that I was fired.”

Unlike a host of Trump administration officials, Pompeo remained employed for the duration of Trump’s presidency. After a year as CIA director, he replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Tillerson was fired by a tweet.

Crowd watches Mike Pompeo
A capacity crowd of around 400 students and Charlottesville-area residents fills Alumni Hall to hear the nation’s former top diplomat. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Pompeo told the crowd how he had to weigh balancing atrocities from other nations with the bigger picture of what the United States needed from those nations. He defended Trump’s cordial meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un, even though UVA student Otto Warmbier had been so badly abused in a North Korean prison that he later died. And Pompeo defended remaining engaged with Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after the Saudi leader ordered the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

“We have to find a way through this thing,” Pompeo said of the journalist’s killing at a Saudi Arabian consulate. “They were an important security partner. The peace deals that were arranged between Israel, the United Emirates, the Bahrainis, the Moroccans and the Sudanese would not have happened without Mohammed bin Salman.”

“And I know Otto’s parents,” Pompeo continued. “Some amazing Americans. But we had a whole handful of incredibly difficult decisions” including dissuading the North Koreans from launching missiles and testing nuclear weapons, he said.

For the most part, Pompeo steered clear of significant criticism of President Joe Biden, with a few exceptions. Pompeo said it set a bad precedent for the United States to negotiate with Iran for the return of captured Americans. Five Americans, including one who was held for eight years and two who were prisoners for five years, were released from Iranian custody last week in a prisoner swap that also included the United States agreeing to transfer nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian funds.

And Pompeo also criticized the current administration for sending aid to Ukraine piecemeal, saying, “You can’t say we’re going to send you four missiles, and when you expend those, we’ll send you four more in a month.” He said by that strategy, the United States is alerting Russian President Vladimir Putin that he can draw out the conflict.

At the same time, Pompeo also faulted some Republicans for trying to block aid to Ukraine.

It was the kind of conversation Lauren Horan, president of UVA College Republicans, was hoping to host when she started lobbying for Pompeo to visit. The event was also sponsored by the UVA Center for Politics, The Jefferson Council and Young America’s Foundation.

Mike Pompeo smiles at student
Student Aly Carbaugh, whose father worked closely with Pompeo in the CIA, prods Pompeo for details on her dad’s service. Pompeo said, “I can’t tell you the greatest things he did, but it was great.” (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

“My opinion, and maybe it will be different from others who listened tonight, is I really didn’t think much of what he said was too controversial,” Horan said. “What I liked in particular was his focus on American values, rather than on conservative values or liberal values. I think that’s the common denominator.”

She was impressed by Pompeo’s willingness to speak about the mistakes he made in his role in the Trump administration and during his four terms in Congress, like the time he admitted taking too personally a disagreement with California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and called her out in a news release. He said he later apologized and “she was gracious about it.”

“For him to be confident and to also acknowledge where there may be some shortcomings, that’s something a lot of my generation truthfully isn’t the greatest at,” Horan said. “We can be too focused, steadfast and stubborn. And when you take a step back and acknowledge the situation with a larger perspective, a larger view, then there is a lot more room for conversation to develop.

“At the end of the day,” she continued, “we can all grow and learn.”

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