During his time as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo was often viewed as one of Donald Trump’s more loyal cabinet members, even showing a rare willingness among top officials after the 2020 election to publicly humor the president’s baseless claims of election fraud. Days after news networks had called the presidential race for Joe Biden, for instance, he told reporters that “There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
But lately, Pompeo has been taking barely veiled jabs at Trump’s 2020-obsession while openly mulling a 2024 run against his former boss—a fact he did not shy away from during his speech at this weekend’s Republican Jewish Coalition conference. He began by joking about going on stage in future presidential debates and getting one of Trump’s trademark nicknames. He went on to warn the audience that “it is simply not enough to own the libs” without a clear positive vision, and that “personality and celebrity just aren’t going to get it done.” And according to some reports, at least, his concerns about Trump began while he was still in office.
Semafor caught up with Pompeo to ask about his possible run and what seems to be his new combativeness towards the former commander-in-chief. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Shelby Talcott: I’m curious how you see your potential campaign compared to other 2024 candidates. What makes your path different than others’?
Mike Pompeo: I don’t think about that. I haven’t decided whether I’m going to run, and my decision whether to run doesn’t depend on what lane I’m in or who else gets in the race. I’ve been at this for decades. The central thesis of the conservative movement is deeply embedded in my DNA, and I care about it. I think it makes America better. I think it makes life for families better. So I don’t think about, how do you differentiate or how do you go scramble for some thin sliver, how do you get in the lane. I simply think about: What are the things that can deliver good outcomes for the American people, and can I be the person who can actually help go deliver that? That’s how Susan and I are thinking about whether we’re going to do this. If we conclude it should be someone else, we’re going to go work really hard for her or him.
Shelby Talcott: More broadly, what do you view as the central issues that any Republican should be running on come 2024?
Mike Pompeo: Yeah, they’re timeless. The central ideas of America are timeless — limited government, expanded set of freedoms, protecting the capacity of people to practice their faith. The very things I spoke about tonight — making sure we don’t teach our kids crap in schools, which we are at the center of doing.
I tell the story often — I get asked “Who’s the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?” The most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten. It’s not a close call. If you ask, “Who’s the most likely to take this republic down?” It would be the teacher’s unions, and the filth that they’re teaching our kids, and the fact that they don’t know math and reading or writing. These are the things that candidates should speak to in a way that says, “Here’s the problem. Here’s a proposal for how to solve it. And if given the opportunity, these are the things I will go work on to try and deliver that outcome that fixes that problem.” Pretty straightforward stuff.
David Weigel: When you talked about how owning the libs, going on Fox News, is not the best criteria for candidates — can you unpack that a little bit? What are the time-wasting versions of doing that? Criticizing Randi Weingarten, pointing to something crazy in a textbook or classroom — if I’m talking to a Democrat they’d say “that’s just owning the libs.”
Mike Pompeo: If there’s something in the textbook that shouldn’t be there, it’s okay to identify that and call it out. But that’s just openers. That’s identification of a risk. Then the question is, so tell me how it is the case that you’re gonna go convince the people of Sedgwick County, Kansas, that they need to identify school board members who are going to push through a curriculum that actually returns to the ideas that made America unique and special.
If our kids don’t grow up understanding America is an exceptional nation, we’re done. If they think it’s an oppressor class and an oppressed class, if they think the 1619 Project, and we were founded on a racist idea — if those are the things people entered the seventh grade deeply embedded in their understanding of America, it’s difficult to understand how Xi Jinping’s claim that America is in decline won’t prove true.
David Weigel: You’re still talking about banning TikTok outright. Can you talk a little bit about why that’s important and why that didn’t happen in the Trump administration?
Mike Pompeo: We ran out of time. We ran out of time, and there was resistance inside the administration.
David Weigel: Based on what?
Mike Pompeo: Money. Economics. Kids like TikTok. There’s always resistance when you make changes that are significant. We should absolutely ban TikTok, but banning TikTok, again, that’s good — but we should ban every element of Chinese technology that sits inside our ecosystem. And we shouldn’t have Chinese research money in our senior institutions to research learning around America. We shouldn’t have them in our national laboratories. We closed the consulate in Houston, Texas — the single largest spy operation ever conducted in America, I believe was being conducted out of the Chinese consulate in Houston, Texas. And America knew it for a long time and didn’t do a damn thing about it.
The Chinese Communist Party is coming for your kids. TikTok is a piece of this and I regret that we didn’t get that done.
Shelby Talcott: Mike Pence spoke a lot about the good things that he felt the administration did, and I think you’d agree with that. Was there a moment that prompted your shift away from Trump?
Mike Pompeo: No, I haven’t shifted.
Shelby Talcott: I mean, you’ve been hinting, there’ve been tweets —
Mike Pompeo: But I haven’t shifted. Tell me what the shift is? I’m contemplating presenting myself as the potential president of the United States to the citizens of America. There’s no shift. The things that worked, we should continue to go do. But I also think times are different. Right? There are moments when we need massive disruption, and there’s moments when you have to go piece it back together. That requires organization and strategy and planning and execution against the plan and measuring your progress against the plan — you know, like I did when I was a small businessperson.
Those things really matter. I think we in the Trump administration did really good work but left a lot on the table because we weren’t able to organize as effectively as we could have. It’s kind of like the midterm election — we won the House of Representatives, that’s fantastic. We won some important races across the country in district attorney’s offices, so, good. But boy, just missed opportunity abounded, and it abounded in our administration as well.
Shelby Talcott: The media has been kind of painting you as quietly coming out more and more against Trump. You’re saying that’s not anything personal?
Mike Pompeo: Well, when you work for the president of the United States, you work for the president of the United States. There’s no, “coming out against the president.” It would be deeply anti-constitutional. It’s immoral, it’s not right. And I never did it, and would never.
Your obligation is that you work for the fellow who got 270-plus electoral votes, and to deliver. You debate him. You should make arguments for your policy. But in the end you work for him. If we were still in office, I would still be working on behalf of the people of America and the Trump administration. But we’re not, and so now is the time for us to figure out how we’re going to get this even more right.
David Weigel: Do you like the idea of Schedule F, the way it was presented at the end of the Trump administration? Do you think there are options for the next Republican president to reduce the permanent staff inside the government and replace them with political appointees?
Mike Pompeo: I do. It’s not straightforward until you have control of the House and the Senate and the president. There are things one can do, but to make the wholesale reforms that I think are necessary, you need to change the law, and I’m going to go work on that. By the way, it could be from the outside, but I’m going to go work on that. I just think it’s important.
I don’t want to remake the State Department in the worldview of Mike Pompeo. I want to remake the State Department to whatever the worldview is of the guy or gal who’s in charge. I want the Department of Education to do the president’s work, I want the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to do the president’s work, and none of those things happen today.
Today the permanent resistance exists deeply, deeply embedded in those institutions, and for leaders who are trying to get those organizations to simply do what it is we’ve asked them to do is devilishly difficult. Not only do you have civil service rules at the State, but you have three collective bargaining agreements. This is belt-and-suspenders designed to disrupt conservatives ideas from moving through those institutions.
Shelby Talcott: Last question. As you’re looking and debating on whether to run in 2024, what do you view as your core voter base? Who would that be?
Mike Pompeo: I just don’t think about it that way. That’s almost the same question that we opened with, right? I am hoping that people from every socioeconomic class, every faith, every ethnicity, every geography, will listen to the ideas that are presented. I think the conservative notion of America — this traditional conservative notion of America — makes life better for every one of those people.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Sedgwick County.