TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A persistent buzz about Mike Pompeo stepping down as the top U.S. diplomat to run for an open Senate seat in Kansas has built to a roar as impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump have intensified scrutiny of the State Department.
The U.S. secretary of state was in Brussels on Wednesday, brushing off questions about the impeachment inquiry and dismissing speculation about how long he’ll stay in Trump’s administration. Pompeo met with NATO’s secretary general, while lawmakers heard testimony from Ambassador Gordon Sondland that he kept Pompeo informed of efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
Against the backdrop of impeachment, strain has set in between Trump and Pompeo. And Republicans already have speculated for months that Pompeo will resign to run for the Senate in his home state. Enthusiasm from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and others regarding such a move has not cooled despite the impeachment hearings.
Many Republicans still see Pompeo as their best candidate for preventing the Kansas race from becoming competitive in a state where a Democrat hasn’t won a Senate seat since 1932. While Democrats would certainly raise Pompeo’s ties to Trump and impeachment revelations, neither would likely hurt him with conservative voters who dominate GOP primaries.
“I do think there’s a chance he runs,” said Alan Cobb, the Kansas Chamber of Commerce’s CEO, a long-active Republican who worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign. “The question comes down to not necessarily impeachment or the relationship with the president but the fundamental question of control of the United States Senate, and I think the landscape next year is murky.”
Pompeo has repeatedly said he intends to stay on as secretary of state as long as Trump will have him and even declared a Senate run “off the table” this summer.
Time magazine reported this week that Pompeo has told three prominent Republicans in recent weeks that he plans to resign from the Trump administration to run for the Senate. The Republicans were not named, and State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters in Brussels that the story is “completely false.”
Pompeo has given no signal that he intends to leave his current job anytime soon, and aides say he has diplomatic travel planned through at least the end of January. En route to Brussels on Tuesday he suggested to reporters accompanying him that he would be returning to the city several more times as secretary of state.
“He is 100% focused on being President Trump’s secretary of state,” Ortagus said.
For months, Pompeo has enjoyed an enviable position in Trump’s Cabinet, his power largely unchecked as he frequently won foreign policy fights with then-National Security Adviser John Bolton and was viewed by the president as an aggressive defender. Among many in Trump’s orbit, Pompeo was viewed as the most powerful Cabinet member.
But Trump more recently has suspiciously viewed the parade of diplomats and career foreign policy officials who alleged he inappropriately withheld military aid from Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into a political foe. Trump was eager to paint the officials as “Never Trumpers” or part of the so-called “Deep State” conspiracy meant to unravel him, but a number of the officials were appointed by Trump — at Pompeo’s direction.
The president has snapped about Pompeo delivering “disloyal” officials and has privately vented about the secretary of state’s hiring choices, according to three White House officials and Republicans close to the White House, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.
And there has been some grumbling among White House aides about Pompeo’s incessant flirtation with running for the Senate, according to the officials. Pompeo’s trips back to his home state — four as of November — have not gone unnoticed, and he has declined to definitively curtail talk about a run. That has led some in Trump’s circle to wonder whether the secretary of state was plotting an escape strategy.
Yet Pompeo has continued to stay close to Trump. He declined to support State Department employees at a news conference, attacked the impeachment proceedings and refused to publicly break with the president. He does not seem in danger of losing his post, according to the officials.
In Brussels on Wednesday, Pompeo said he hadn’t watched the impeachment hearings.
“I didn’t see a single thing today,” he told a reporter. “I was working. Sounds like you might not have been.”
Four-term Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is not seeking re-election in 2020. At a meeting with Trump and Pompeo earlier this month, he praised Pompeo’s work as secretary of state after Pompeo disavowed a Senate run.
“But I did say that if it got down to where Kansas would either be a Republican state or not, that we might want to take a look at that,” Roberts said during an interview.
The interest in Pompeo running for the Senate is driven by some GOP leaders’ fears that Kris Kobach, nationally known for advocating tough immigration policies, will emerge from a crowded primary race in August. Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state, rouses Democrats and liberal activists while alienating GOP moderates, and he lost the 2018 governor’s race to Democrat Laura Kelly.
During a Nov. 8 “Save the Senate” event in Washington, Kevin McLaughlin, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s executive director, said audience members should call Pompeo and urge him to run, a source with knowledge of the GOP’s strategy said.
The source, who spoke anonymously because the committee doesn’t have a formal role in the race, said the comment was meant as a laugh-getting line. But the source also said Pompeo is viewed as a “game changer” candidate who will be well-funded on his own.
Pompeo’s entry into the race would likely push most other GOP candidates out — though Kobach has not said he would drop out. The other Republicans running include U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall of western Kansas, Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle and David Lindstrom, a Kansas City-area businessman and ex-Kansas City Chiefs player.
“You have to imagine, whatever data they have, in a Republican primary, Kobach is still a formidable candidate,” said University of Kansas political scientist Patrick Miller. “They need to find a candidate who is 10 kinds of awesome to beat him.”
Prominent Republicans said Pompeo’s stature isn’t likely to dip with fellow Republicans because of the impeachment hearings. Cobb said testimony Wednesday simply tied Pompeo more closely to a “nothing burger.”
Cheryl Reynolds, the chairwoman of the GOP in the 2nd Congressional District in eastern Kansas, said Republican voters see the impeachment inquiry as “purely political.”
“They see his whole thing as a sham,” said Kelly Arnold, a former Kansas Republican Party chairman. “They’re going dismiss most of the stuff that is being said and thrown at Mike Pompeo.”
Lemire reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed from Brussels.
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