Fresh off of a $30,000 investment in media training, Donald Trump’s former secretary of state spent much of January praising Russia's Vladimir Putin in very Trump-like language. Putin was “talented,” “savvy,” and a “capable statesman,” Mike Pompeo said. Now that it turns out that Putin’s use of power in the invasion of Ukraine has united much of the world against him (and doesn’t seem to be going as well as expected), Pompeo is sounding somewhat different notes. But only somewhat.
Putin “is a very talented statesman. He has lots of gifts,” according to Pompeo in January. “He was a KGB agent, for goodness sakes. He knows how to use power. We should respect that.” Really reaching for the rhetorical heights, Pompeo described Putin as “an elegantly sophisticated counterpart and one who is not reckless but has always done the math.”
Speaking at CPAC on Friday, though, Pompeo basically followed the non-Trump Republican talking points—denounce Putin briefly then pivot to attacking President Joe Biden—when he said, “We've seen a Russian dictator now terrorize the Ukrainian people because America didn't demonstrate the resolve that we did for the four years prior.” While Pompeo opened with that as part of a laundry list of things wrong in the world, he then didn’t return to Russia-Ukraine until after several minutes of speaking on immigration and North Korea. When he did briefly return to how “We see on our TV the bombs, the missiles, the Soviet tanks, the Russian tanks moving across Ukraine,” it was only as a segue to talk about his real concern: China.
In his comments about China, Pompeo used language that he would doubtless say was about Chinese economic manipulation and spying, but realistically? It encourages anti-Asian hate. Check it out: “They're inside our colleges and universities," he said. "They're working on local governments, mayors, governors. You should demand that your mayor, your county commissioner, your school board member, your governor doesn't kowtow, does not bend a knee to the Chinese Communist Party.”
“They” theoretically applies to Chinese government spies and influence agents there. But taken in the context of rising anti-Asian hate crimes over the past two years, these are dangerous words, encouraging Pompeo’s CPAC audience to view all people of Chinese descent with suspicion.
And while Pompeo did make the pivot from Putin as “elegantly sophisticated counterpart” to “Russian dictator,” he still reserved a harsher description for Chinese President Xi Jinping, calling him a “jackbooted thug.”
CPAC is surely among Pompeo’s most important appearances of 2022 as he positions himself for whatever he thinks is next—perhaps a presidential run, in his imagination. The message he conveyed there was that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is an afterthought, something to touch on briefly a couple times on his way to more important subjects. It may not have been outright praise of Putin, as it was just a few weeks ago, but it was clear that, in Pompeo’s reckoning, this horrific war ranked somewhere alongside jokes about his own enormous weight loss, and behind brutal immigration policy, fear of China, and the Trump administration’s imagined achievements in North Korea.