WASHINGTON (TNS) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo introduced himself to hundreds of U.S. diplomats and staffers who packed the State Department lobby Tuesday, vowing to return "swagger" to a staff that has been demoralized by budget cuts and unfilled vacancies.
Standing on the stairs of the flag-bedecked hall, Pompeo repeatedly said he was "humbled" to lead America's diplomatic corps. They "need to be in every corner, every stretch of the world" to represent U.S. interests and carry out foreign policy, he said.
The crowd applauded as the former CIA director praised U.S. Foreign and Civil Service officers as "patriots and great Americans." He added, "You will be the diplomatic face to achieve the outcomes that the United States so desperately needs."
Pompeo said President Donald Trump would stop by on Wednesday to lead his ceremonial swearing-in — Trump's first visit to the State Department in the nearly 16 months since he took office.
Earlier Tuesday, Trump introduced Pompeo during a trophy ceremony for the U.S. Military Academy's football team in the Rose Garden, calling him "a man that has gotten more publicity than me, lately, our new secretary of state — first in his class at West Point."
Pompeo, 54, gave his brief remarks at the State Department on his first full day of work there. He had rushed off to meetings with allies in Europe and the Middle East hours after he was confirmed by the Senate last Thursday, and only returned Monday night.
He avoided any discussion of Trump's foreign policy, or the challenges he faces in an administration that has sparred with traditional allies like Mexico and Germany, and vowed to pull out of international agreements, including the NAFTA trade agreement and the Iran nuclear accord.
His off-the-cuff comments appeared aimed, in part, at distinguishing himself from his unpopular predecessor, Rex Tillerson, who received a similar welcome in the same lobby when he was confirmed last year.
But Tillerson won few friends with a management style criticized as heavy-handed and aloof, and Trump fired him in March after they clashed on the Iran deal and other policy issues.
Pompeo pointedly said he would spend little time on the seventh floor, site of the mahogany-paneled suite of offices where Tillerson's critics said he became isolated. Pompeo even joked that he wasn't sure of the location of his new office. "I think it's the seventh floor, right?"
Pompeo received sustained applause, and a few hoots and hollers, when he and his wife, Susan, walked into the State Department lobby. Though the mood was upbeat, and some snapped cellphone photos of the scene, several members of the audience expressed uncertainty.
"We'll see," said one employee who did not give her name. "We hope now there will be some movement forward."
The new secretary already has shown a willingness to deal with the traditional requirements of the job. A former member of Congress, he clearly is more comfortable with the media than the taciturn Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, ever was.
Unlike Tillerson, Pompeo took several reporters on his maiden trip abroad and spoke to them several times, a practice he is expected to continue. He greeted staff and families at U.S. embassies in most of the countries he visited, another practice Tillerson initially snubbed.
Pompeo is also more gifted in the ways of Washington and the politics that inevitably color the high-level post. He is known to have Trump's trust, which Tillerson struggled to gain, and that seems to give him more authority and confidence.
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan didn't hold back in his introduction, alluding to Pompeo's Army service and Harvard Law School training to say he would be formidable in any negotiation — a cross between the aggressive Gen. George Patton during World War II and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the famed Supreme Court jurist.
Pompeo may need those skills in the weeks ahead. Trump has overhauled much of his national security team, recently naming John Bolton as his new national security adviser, as he prepares for a potentially historic nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Pompeo already has helped with the planning, making a secret trip to Pyongyang over Easter weekend, where he spent an hour talking to Kim. Trump has said he anticipates meeting Kim by mid-June either in Singapore or in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
Trump also has set a May 12 deadline to decide whether to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, which is supported by much of Europe and other world powers who say it has successfully curbed Tehran's nuclear capabilities.
Pompeo also must deal with what critics called Tillerson's hollowing-out of the State Department. Tillerson let go much of the senior leadership and axed or consolidated programs dealing with global human rights, climate change, women's health and other once-championed issues.
Pompeo said at his Senate confirmation hearing that he intended to fill key positions. Several senior positions have gone through the confirmation process in recent days, including an undersecretary for arms control and international security, and an assistant secretary for verification and compliance. Both are expected to play a role in the Iran and North Korea nuclear debates.
During his first trip abroad as secretary, Pompeo attended a meeting last Friday of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels. It was a symbolic first choice, demonstrating U.S. commitment to European allies and the transatlantic alliance despite Trump's often-dismissive comments.
Pompeo then flew to Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan, America's closest allies in the Middle East. Trump announced in December that he will shift the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that counters decades of U.S. policy. The move is expected in mid-May.