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Mike Pompeo suddenly finds his voice on the virus

By Nahal Toosi

After keeping a low profile for weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suddenly can’t stop talking about the coronavirus.

America’s top diplomat has been hitting the phones to chat with a slew of foreign counterparts about the virus. He’s been on Fox News to boast about the “amazing work” of the State Department in bringing back Americans stranded abroad. He wrote a letter to State Department staffers last week primarily focused on the pandemic.

And his Twitter account — his professional one — has dramatically ramped up activity, firing out numerous missives about the U.S. role in battling the infectious menace.

“Global cooperation between the public and private sector will make the difference: we'll #StopTheSpread together,” Pompeo tweeted Tuesday, shortly before holding a news conference to, among other things, talk about the virus.

Pompeo’s increased visibility over the past week follows intense criticism of his performance throughout the coronavirus crisis. The critics include his own employees, many of whom were already upset at his treatment of career diplomats during the impeachment scandal that engulfed President Donald Trump.

U.S. diplomats, lawmakers and others had accused Pompeo of being largely AWOL as his department dealt with ferrying home tens of thousands of Americans stuck overseas and rolling back embassy services abroad amid general internal confusion about social distancing measures.

Not only did Pompeo fail to offer leadership, the critics said, he’s cynically using the pandemic to pound on U.S. adversaries — especially China and Iran — undermining global cooperation against the virus right when it’s badly needed.

“He has been largely absent,” said Tom Wright, a foreign affairs scholar at the Brookings Institution who follows Pompeo’s moves closely. “What we know he’s done has not been very helpful.”

Pompeo drew derision in particular when, on March 21, he used his personal Twitter account to post a picture of himself and his wife watching a classic Tom Cruise movie and piecing together a puzzle. “Susan and I are staying in and doing a puzzle this afternoon. Pro tip: if you’re missing the beach, just throw on Top Gun!” Pompeo wrote.

The respondents included Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona, who wrote: “I have constituents stuck overseas can you get off your ass and get them home?”

In a later tweet, Pompeo tried to suggest he was working at the same time, but the damage was done. (The tweets were sent shortly before he headed for a brief trip to Afghanistan.)

People close to Pompeo acknowledge his profile has been lower than one might expect during an international crisis. But they dispute the idea that he’s been absent, saying he’s stayed on top of the pandemic the entire time, though often behind the scenes.

They point out that Pompeo has State Department representatives working closely with the president, the vice president and others on the coronavirus response. Those aides include Deborah Birx, the State-based U.S. official overseeing HIV/AIDS response, and Stephen Biegun, the deputy secretary of State. Much of the internal coordination in Foggy Bottom has been handled by other top Pompeo staffers, but that’s because it’s their job, the people close to the secretary say.

“I understand that there are folks in the State Department who have a different political persuasion than the secretary,” one of the people said. But “he’s made very clear that he cares about every employee.”

The person added, however, that Pompeo plans to be more out front in the coming days, on a variety of communications platforms.

One reason Pompeo may have kept a lower profile as the virus crisis grew in January and February might be that Trump himself was downplaying it. The president kept insisting the U.S. wouldn’t suffer and that the problem would go away.

Pompeo, a former Republican congressman from Kansas, has long been one of Trump’s closest aides, and he’s achieved that in part by almost never contradicting his boss in public. He could have drawn Trump’s wrath if he’d raised alarms about the virus.

But Pompeo’s unwillingness to get ahead of the president also filtered down throughout the State Department, leaving ambassadors and other top officials unclear as to how to address the outbreak with their employees as well as the public, current and former department staffers say.

His lack of urgency, the critics argue, contributed to confusion about whether U.S. diplomats should even be holding meetings or going in to work. “It’s handicapped the State Department’s normal procedures and trip wires,” said Brett Bruen, an outspoken former U.S. diplomat who now works as a consultant.

As the weeks went on, State Department employees were especially incensed that they heard so little directly from Pompeo. One bemoaned that he’d “heard from a f–-ing laundry service I used five years ago about how they’re taking care of their employees and customers but not a thing from the secretary of State.”

Pompeo has started trying to rectify that. On Friday, he sent a note, titled “Message from Mike: Resilience and Strength of Our Team” to the department that was mostly about the virus crisis. (He’d only briefly mentioned it in a previous message.)

“I couldn’t be prouder of what you’ve accomplished during this global pandemic,” he wrote. “You’re doing some of the most impressive work in the State Department’s 230-year history.”

He’s also praised the department on Fox News, on Twitter, and during Tuesday’s news conference. In particular, Pompeo has touted the growing numbers of Americans — more than 25,000 so far — that U.S. diplomats have helped get home in the past few weeks.

He gave the example of the State Department helping transport an American who was “critically ill from the virus” and stuck thousands of miles away in the Asian nation of Bhutan to an intensive care unit in Baltimore.

“This was one of the most complex medical evacuations in history, and the State Department pulled it off,” he said Tuesday.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Pompeo’s coronavirus response so far — an area in which he has been outspoken from the start — is his use of it to attack American adversaries such as Iran and China.

At times, it seemed that was the main reason he spoke out about the virus at all.

Pompeo, furious that some Chinese officials were hinting that the virus might have originated outside their borders — possibly even from the U.S. — began calling it the “Wuhan virus.” He’s also repeatedly criticized Beijing for its lack of transparency about the virus, noting that Chinese officials silenced doctors who sounded the alarm as the disease spread and chiding them for their lack of engagement with U.S. officials.

Pompeo also has used the virus crisis to go after Iran, a country whose Islamist regime he has long characterized as a threat to the world. Iran has been among the hardest-hit countries struggling with the virus, and Pompeo has blamed the depth of the outbreak there on the corruption of the ruling clerics.

Despite the pandemic, the Trump administration has continued extending or adding economic sanctions on Iran. The New York Times has reported on ongoing discussions involving Pompeo and others about military strikes against Iran-linked targets in the Middle East.

Pompeo insists the U.S. wants to cooperate with China and other countries to battle the virus. He notes that the U.S. even offered Iran humanitarian aid to battle the pandemic — an offer the Iranians dismissed as insincere. On Tuesday, he unveiled a proposal to lift sanctions on Venezuela – another U.S. adversary — in return for a political transition that could erode or end the rule of dictator Nicolás Maduro.

Pompeo’s defenders also say he’s well within his rights to call out enemies even during a pandemic that’s affecting the whole world. “The bad guys go on, and we have to deal with them,” the person close to Pompeo said. “The Iranians have not dropped their arms the last time I checked.”

But others argue that Pompeo’s attacks are damaging potential international cooperation against the virus.

“It’s bad policy because we are in this together, and strengthening the capability of all countries to cooperate on information exchange and best practices will save American lives,” said Tom Countryman, a former senior State Department official.

That’s especially the case with China, which controls a good chunk of the world’s pharmaceutical supply chain.

The Group of Seven, a collection of leading countries that does not include China, was unable recently to produce a joint statement about combating the virus, by some accounts because Pompeo wanted it to mention the disease’s origins in China.

Pompeo supporters downplay the lack of a G-7 joint statement, saying there’s been plenty of international cooperation behind the scenes. The State Department also has made sure to put out a steady stream of readouts of calls Pompeo has had with foreign counterparts as evidence of that.

Pompeo himself insists he will work with “every country” to fight the virus, even the Chinese. But he’s also repeatedly pointed out that other countries — especially China, Russia and Iran — are using the crisis to spread disinformation aimed at sowing chaos in the United States.

“We need every country to step up and provide accurate, transparent information,” he told Fox News’ Sean Hannity on Monday. “And if we can’t have that, if we have disinformation instead, there are more lives that will be at risk not only today but in the weeks ahead as we battle this enormous challenge."