WASHINGTON — Susan Pompeo, the wife of America’s top diplomat, said in an interview last year that she could handle the criticism that came with taking a high-profile role at the State Department.
If so, the past few days have surely tested her mettle.
Susan Pompeo is now under scrutiny after the firing of the State Department’s inspector general at her husband’s behest. It is an uninvited turn for a woman who has long appeared to relish the relationships and perks of being a politician’s wife, and who has been far more vibrant in the limelight than Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the other half of a “down-to-earth power couple,” as they have been called in their home state of Kansas.
“Our whole family teases him about being a diplomat,” Susan Pompeo said in February, warming up the crowd at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington before Mike Pompeo took the stage. “He always says to them that he’s delivering diplomacy with a little bit of a twist. So, less cocktail party banter and more straightforward talk.”
By many accounts, it is Susan Pompeo who is better skilled at the kind of personable engagement expected of diplomats and politicians alike — a gregarious, chatty foil to her husband’s stern public demeanor.
Mike Michaelis, who hired Susan Pompeo in the 1980s to work at Emprise Bank in Wichita, Kansas, where she later met her husband, described her as “very smart, able to get in front of people and be very articulate.”
“Susan is a perfect mate for him, and would be a perfect mate for anybody that’s in the public eye, in public office — she is warm and people that meet her, like her immediately,” Michaelis said in an interview.
At the State Department, Pompeo has traveled with her husband on diplomatic trips far more frequently than most spouses of past secretaries of state. She uses the travel, in part, to meet with families of diplomats posted overseas, often acting as an unofficial advocate for the safety and comfort of those who accompany government employees posted abroad, a mission common to the spouses of senior government officials. She took on similar unofficial responsibilities at the CIA when Mike Pompeo was the director of the spy agency in 2017 and early 2018.
But at both agencies, her frequent travel gave way to questions about her conduct.
Diplomats have complained of having to tend to Susan Pompeo’s needs when she is overseas, including keeping her on schedule when she is eager to explore Europe’s ancient churches or bazaars in the Middle East.
A whistleblower tipped off Democrats in Congress that Pompeo had her own security guards, and that agents with the Diplomatic Security Service had been tasked with running errands for the family like picking up takeout food and collecting the family dog from a groomer. (Susan Pompeo’s security code name — “Shocker,” according to CNN — is the name of the athletic teams at her alma mater, Wichita State University, where she was named homecoming queen before graduating in 1979.)
Before he was fired Friday, the State Department’s inspector general, Steve A. Linick, was examining, among other issues, the potential misuse of an aide to do personal errands for both Pompeos, according to congressional Democrats. On Monday, President Donald Trump said he had “never heard of” Linick but fired him after “I was asked by the State Department, by Mike.”
Trump ridiculed the investigation into whether taxpayer funds were spent for a government official’s personal gain — in this case, according to Democratic officials, the salary of a staff member who was picking up the Pompeos’ dry cleaning, making their restaurant reservations and walking the dog.
“I would rather have him on the phone with some world leader than have him wash dishes because maybe his wife isn’t there,” Trump said in Mike Pompeo’s defense.
State Department press officers did not respond to a request to interview Susan Pompeo. The identity of the aide was not clear, and department press officers refused to provide it.
When Mike Pompeo was a Republican congressman representing a Kansas district, he and Susan Pompeo asked staff members in his Washington office to perform tasks that included picking up dry cleaning, making restaurant reservations and compiling Christmas card lists, according to people with knowledge of the events. However, the boundaries between personal and professional activities for members of Congress are often blurred, and some of the tasks straddled that line.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., a former assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Obama administration, said he was unaware of any other senior State Department officials, current or former, who asked aides to perform tasks that would reasonably be defined as household chores.
He said he did not know of clear-cut department rules that outlined what might be considered inappropriate, and acknowledged that past secretaries of state relied on staff members to carry their bags or make dinner reservations when traveling overseas.
“That kind of help tends to stop on your front door in Washington, D.C.,” Malinowski said.
Before he ruled out running for the U.S. Senate this year, Mike Pompeo’s frequent travels to Kansas attracted the anger of Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who questioned whether the secretary of state was improperly playing politics when he was supposed to be working as a diplomat.
Friends in Wichita say Susan Pompeo, with her natural vivaciousness and network of friends and business contacts, helped first propel Mike Pompeo into politics.
“She’s like a magnet; people are attracted to her,” said Lynn Stephan, who first met Susan Pompeo more than 30 years ago through the Wichita State University alumni association. “She had a huge Rolodex, and it probably did help his original election, a lot.”
But they say they are also careful to not cross the Pompeos, fearing retribution in the small southeast Kansan city. Susan Pompeo remains politically active in Kansas, and recently endorsed a Republican challenger in a three-way House primary to unseat the incumbent Democrat, Sharice Davids.
People in Wichita and Washington who have watched the couple believe Susan Pompeo’s political ambition for her husband’s future may exceed even his own.
She has schooled Mike Pompeo on his public presentations, including giving him a failing grade for his 2015 grilling of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during a House hearing on the deaths of four U.S. officials in Benghazi, Libya. “I gave myself a ‘C,’” Mike Pompeo said later.
She plays up his tastes in music and movies — Mike Pompeo is a fan of the rock band Queen. “We saw ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ the first weekend,” she told Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, in a February 2019 interview on “Extra!”
And, as she put it in a Washington Times interview last year, Susan Pompeo urges her husband to stop and “smell a rose or two, maybe, if I’m along” on State Department trips.
It is not clear how much Susan Pompeo’s travels with the State Department have cost taxpayers, or whether she has been reimbursing the government as she did for similar trips with the CIA. Press officers for the State Department would not provide information this week about who accompanies Mike Pompeo on official business and what costs they may incur.
What is clear, however, is that Pompeo is not likely to bow to criticism over the role of his wife, whom he described as a “force multiplier” in their self-described joint mission at the State Department and beyond.
“We’ve been great partners,” he said in an interview in Kansas last year, “in everything that we’ve done together.”