Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s 16 hour visit to Israel on Wednesday was one of the most curious geopolitical activities ever conducted by the Trump Administration, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. The U.S. recently declined to participate in major European meeting held to develop a united approach to dealing with Covid-19, because President Trump reportedly stated that the U.S. had nothing to gain from the Western alliance meeting. Yet the President dispatched Pompeo to Israel just as Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was trying to finish securing the final components for his new coalition Government.
The public agenda for Pompeo’s visit appeared at first to concern addressing the new Israeli Government’s pledge to follow the Trump Peace Proposal including annexing areas of the West Bank. This proposal was very much on Trump’s mind, certainly as he faces a much more challenging electoral environment in the fall. To send Pompeo to Jerusalem, however, for something that could have been accomplished with a telephone call was truly bizarre. Given the serious concern that Trump now has to secure his base, including right wing Jewish supporters—especially in the critical state of Florida—as well among the President’s following among Evangelical Christians, perhaps a call from Trump rather than Pompeo might have sufficed from a policy perspective; but lacked it the political visibility of a photo-op.
Pompeo’s visit now appears actually to have had more significant global policy implications, at least from the perspective of Washington. Given Israel’s growing trade and technological relationship with China, Israel’s aggressive activity with China seemed to contradict much of what was another growing Trump campaign agenda.
Trump’s rhetorical escalation against China, blaming it for the U.S.’s missteps in addressing the coronavirus, were not compatible in Washington’s eyes with Israel’s expanded trade relationship. Pompeo, therefore, was sent to convince Netanyahu that if Israel expected continuing strong backing from Washington, it behooved Jerusalem to go very slow in any China trade expansion now under consideration.
While Pompeo did not mind serving as Trump’s errand boy to Israel—and he is certainly strongly identified with the Evangelical position on the Jewish State—there were apparently two other issues for which Pompeo wanted assurance from Trump. First, it has been ascertained since Friday that the President actually had no rationale for firing the State Department Inspector General, Steve Lenick. While Trump had the authority to fire the IG—after giving Congress 30 days’ notice—Lenick’s dismissal appears to have been based on Pompeo’s knowledge as to why Lenick was conducting an investigation concerning Secretary Pompeo. Lenick was considering why Pompeo had one of his assistants running personal errands for the Pompeo and his wife.
Second, there has been very active discussion around Washington that the Kansas Senate seat currently held by the retiring Republican Senator Pat Roberts could swing to the Democrats in January. Pompeo, a former House Member from Kansas, continues to be under intense pressure from Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to reconsider his decision and run for Roberts’ seat. With a strong, moderate, former Republican candidate, Barbara Bollier, as the Democratic candidate, and a newly elected Democratic Governor, Laura Kelly, the pressure has been mounting for Pompeo to change his mind and come home to Kansas to run for the Senate.
Despite Pompeo’s declination in January, there is a sense that McConnell and Trump are in a political battle over Pompeo. Sending him around the world and trying to cover his tracks at Foggy Bottom is the President’s way to signal to the Secretary that he can do more for him than his becoming a Senator. Trump’s perspective, unlike McConnell’s, is focused only on his own political future and gains; McConnell thinks of Pompeo as a way to protect GOP control of the Senate, even if Trump is not re-elected.