Secretary of State Pompeo hits ground running with big trip hours after swearing in

April 27, 2018, 5:14 AM

After being confirmed as the 70th Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo hit the ground running -- the tarmac, more specifically.

Immediately after he was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito -- a man he admires and a fellow Italian-American, Pompeo said -- the former CIA Director went to Joint Base Andrews to board a flight for his first trip as the U.S.'s top diplomat.

"No other secretary in recent history has gone on a trip as quickly as he has," State Department spokesperson and acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday, standing in front of Pompeo's awaiting plane.

Pompeo is in Brussels, Belgium, for a summit of NATO foreign ministers at the alliance's headquarters, where he will also meet one on one with his Turkish and Italian counterparts. After NATO, Pompeo will travel to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan -- three countries chosen for their "importance" as "key allies and partners in the region," Nauert said.

Beyond the grueling first few hours on the job -- which includes landing in Brussels just before 4 a.m. local time -- Pompeo will be hit with critical challenges, some of his boss's making.

Many European allies are still wary of Trump after his initial hesitation on reaffirming NATO's Article 5 of mutual defense and because of his constant criticism that countries pay more for their defense.

Germany, Europe's largest economy, particularly has been rankled by Trump's stances, from climate change to refugees, even as a senior State Department official again called the country out in particular for not meeting the defense spending threshold that NATO allies agreed to -- 2% of GDP.

Pompeo will have to reaffirm those U.S. commitments while reiterating the president's message on "burden sharing."

But he'll also face pressing issues that demand all of the foreign ministers' attention, including Russian aggression in cyberspace and Ukraine. In just the last 48 hours, 22 Ukrainian soldiers have been wounded in eastern Ukraine, according to Nauert, who blamed "Russia-led forces" for their "intensified artillery attacks."

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, left, talks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, during a NATO Foreign ministers' meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on April 27, 2018.
John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

There are also disagreements within the alliance. U.S. ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchinson expressed serious concerns about Turkey and its purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia, telling German broadcaster Deutsche Welle this week, "We are very worried at the point that we have come to."

Pompeo's meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavusoglu, also comes after months of high tensions with the Trump administration over Syria, U.S. support for Kurdish forces there and Turkey's crackdown on opposition figures, including the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson and some locally employed U.S. diplomatic staff.

In Saudi Arabia, the administration has warmer relations, especially after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's three-week tour of the U.S. Pompeo is set to meet with King Salman and Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir, Nauert said.

He'll have important topics to discuss, including Trump's demand that regional allies such as the Saudis pay more for reconstruction and stabilization in Syria and send ground troops to secure the peace. That's something the Saudis seem hesitant to do, with Foreign Minister Jubeir demanding that Qatar pay for U.S. forces in Syria and send their own troops.

Pompeo will also make a stop in Israel and visit with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A close ally of the White House, Netanyahu will embrace Pompeo as a stalwart supporter of Israel -- and the two are likely to talk about the opening of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem next month, as well as their shared concerns about Iran's presence in the region.

Jordan rounds out the trip, the U.S.'s "close friend and invaluable ally in the region," Nauert said. There, Pompeo will meet with King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

When Pompeo returns on Monday he will start his first full week at the State Department in Washington, where he faces perhaps his greatest challenge: turning around a demoralized agency sapped by a hiring freeze, vacancies in critical roles and proposed budget cuts.

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