With Trump hunkered down and time running out, Mike Pompeo has been 'laying landmines' for Joe Biden

Mike Pompeo
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  • This month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unveiled several drastic changes to US foreign policy.

  • Backlash was swift, with many criticizing them as further attempts to undercut the Biden administration and as an effort by Pompeo to burnish his own political credentials.

  • "Pompeo is continuing with reckless, politicized foreign-policy decisions," rather than focusing "on facilitating a smooth and efficient transition," Rep. Gregory Meeks told Insider in a statement.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

President Donald Trump has been uncharacteristically quiet in the days since the January 6 riot in the US Capitol building.

Kicked off social media, and with few allies left, Trump has said little and been seen even less. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, has been busy, announcing a raft of policies that are widely seen as efforts to cement his own standing and to box in President-elect Joe Biden.

Trump has been largely hands-off on foreign policy, which has been reflected in the messy process to reach that policy, according to John Gans, a historian of US foreign policy and former speechwriter at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.

"This has been a disorderly, chaotic administration from Day One, but I don't think anybody would have expected it to have gotten to where it's gotten in the past week to 10 days," Gans told Insider.

Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump

Many of Trump's diplomatic efforts have drawn scrutiny, but over four days this month, Pompeo unveiled four policy moves that drew swift and widespread backlash.

On January 9, the State Department announced that the US government should consider previous self-imposed restrictions on official contact with Taiwan "null and void." On January 10, Pompeo announced that the State Department would designate Yemen's Houthi rebels as a terrorist group.

On January 11, Pompeo said the State Department had designated Cuba a state sponsor of terror, returning it to the list five years after Obama removed it. On January 12, Pompeo claimed that Iran had become "the home base" for Al Qaeda, a dramatic and widely disputed assertion that many worry could be used a legal basis for military action.

With those measures, announced less than two weeks before leaving office, "Pompeo is continuing with reckless, politicized foreign-policy decisions," rather than focusing "on facilitating a smooth and efficient transition," Rep. Gregory Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Insider in a statement.

"Pompeo's policy announcements this week are more of the same kind of disastrous, rushed missteps that have characterized this administration's catastrophic foreign policy from Day One," Meeks added.

Laying landmines

Mike Pompeo Israel Palestinians West Bank
Palestinians protest a visit by Pompeo to the the Israeli settlement of Psagot, in the occupied West Bank, on November 18, 2020. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Criticism has come from current and former officials as well as from overseas.

Cuba's designation has been widely repudiated; Norway's government called it "regrettable." David Miliband, a former British lawmaker who now leads the International Rescue Committee, called the Houthi designation "pure diplomatic vandalism." Together, the designations are a "salting of the earth before" Biden takes over, Paul Pillar, a former US intelligence official, wrote this week.

While many welcome a review of the US's relationship with Taiwan - Taiwan itself praised the decision - the timing and nature of the change was criticized for opening Taipei to retaliation from Beijing, which sees Taiwan as a renegade province, and for politicizing that relationship.

"The idea that we should be looking at these types of issues is valid. I think Pompeo doing it to make himself a China Hawk with less than two weeks left administration is incredibly dangerous," Ben Rhodes, deputy national security advisor during the Obama administration, said on a recent episode of the Pod Save the World podcast.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told CNBC this week that Pompeo has been "salting the earth in the US-China relationship in general and laying landmines on Taiwan in particular."

Mike Pompeo

These recent moves are widely seen as an effort to saddle the Biden administration with the bureaucratic burden of reviewing those decisions and opening it to political attacks if it rescinds them.

A Trump administration official told CNN the goal was "to set so many fires that it will be hard ... to put them all out."

"If Pompeo is nothing else, he's a roadmap to what we're going to hear for the next four years," Rhodes said. "The hyperbolic criticisms of Joe Biden are going to be ... from the Iran hawks, the China hawks, and the Cuba hawks."

It's not clear what it will take to undo those last-minute policies. Some can likely be undone with a few signatures. Others, such as terrorism designations, normally require reviews to ensure the designee doesn't support terrorism.

But the Biden team shouldn't "abide by some scrupulous norm" to reverse policies that are "so clearly political and done by the seat of the pants," Rhodes said.

'America will be better when he leaves'

Mike Pompeo Donald Trump Patrick Shanahan
Andrew Harnik/AP Images

When Pompeo took over the State Department in spring 2018, he said he wanted it "to get its swagger back," but Pompeo has often alienated the department and hewed close to Trump, embracing the president's baseless objections to the US election, even as Pompeo expounded on the importance of free and fair elections overseas.

The new policies, like others before them, are seen as Pompeo's maneuvers for a future run for political office. But if he's counting on riding his record, the trip will be short, Gans said.

"My hunch is that Pompeo's legacy and his accomplishments will be small, in the same way any mischief he's done will be small in the scale of American foreign policy," said Gans, author of a history of the National Security Council.

"That doesn't mean that it's not going to take work to fix the problems. It just means that it's work that can be done," Gans added, citing the George H.W. Bush administration's recovery from the "wild west" of Reagan's foreign policy.

Meeks told Insider that his committee "stands ready to work with President Biden to restore American global leadership and advance our nation from the devastation wrought by President Trump and his lead crony, Pompeo."

For some in Kansas, where Pompeo used a seat in Congress to boost his national profile with attacks on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the end can't come soon enough.

"In about a week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's service will mercifully come to an end," the editorial board of the Kansas City Star wrote this week. "America will be better when he leaves office. Kansas will be much better if he decides to stay away from his adopted home state forever."

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