CIA Director Mike Pompeo, picked to be the next secretary of state, listens during his introductions before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be Secretary of State, Thursday, April 12, 2018 on Capitol Hill in Washington. Pompeo’s remarks will be the first chance for lawmakers and the public to hear directly from the former Kansas congressman about his approach to diplomacy and the role of the State Department, should he be confirmed to lead it. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Chairman Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., Ranking Member Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds Pompeo’s confirmation hearing Thursday.
One of the major problems faced by the Trump administration from the very early days was the fact that the State Department has acted less like an organization focused on carrying out the foreign policy of the administration than a collection of whiny brats pining for the good old days of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. The recalcitrance and hostility on the part of the diplomatic establishment led President Trump to largely sideline State and, eventually, fire Rex Tillerson. Now, with Mike Pompeo at the helm, things may be changing.
In one of his first major personnel moves as secretary of state, Mike Pompeo is expected to withdraw the nomination of Susan Thornton for Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, three sources with knowledge of the matter told ABC News.
Thornton is a career Foreign Service officer with 20 years of experience in the region who has been the acting Assistant Secretary since March 2017. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was a fierce proponent of hers, battling China hawks in the administration and on Capitol Hill to get White House approval for her nomination in December.
The reason Thornton’s nomination is going to crash and burn is that she has a history of prioritizing pleasing the Chinese over US interests.
Throughout the early days of the administration’s review of China policy and the National Security Strategy process, Thornton was seen as prioritizing continuity in U.S.-China relations over challenging Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behavior around the world.
“On every tactical question of consequence on Asia since the inauguration, Susan has been opposed to taking serious action to counter Chinese economic and political aggression,” a senior White House official told me.
Thornton and her defenders dispute this characterization, though the State Department declined to comment for this article. This dynamic was on display during her February confirmation hearing, during which Rubio pressed her on some specific instances.
For example, the Wall Street Journal reported last October that the State Department resisted efforts by the FBI to arrest officials from China’s ministry of state security who had traveled to New York under false pretenses to pressure Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese businessman, to stop criticizing the Chinese Communist government.
Thornton initially testified she was “not sure” she was involved in the incident, but responded to follow-up questions from Rubio by saying she was out of the country, and that one of her deputies participated in the process. She did not answer directly whether her office argued against the FBI’s request to arrest the Chinese officials, as the Journal reported.
With Chinese issues playing a major role these days–trade, militarization of the South China Sea, North Korea, theft of intellectual property, Chinese economic colonialism in Africa and other places–the decision to replace someone who was focused on maintaining good relations with China rather than on pressing US interests seems like a good idea. Plus, she’s got some significant opposition in the Senate.
I will do all I can to defeat the current nominee for top #Asia diplomat. This position needs to be held by someone who understands we need to rebalance our relationship with #China, support #Taiwan & defend human rights. https://t.co/9qHwy4CRLk
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) March 15, 2018
This is why I will do all I can to prevent Susan Thornton from ever being confirmed as Asst Secretary of State for E. Asian & Pacific Affairs. She is in Tokyo undermining @POTUS by advocating for partial surrender of nukes by #NorthKorea as acceptable https://t.co/42uyhx5tVx
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) May 17, 2018
I doubt that the White House is willing to try to roll Rubio to advance the nomination of someone who doesn’t seem to be supporting the administration’s agenda.
My guess is that Thornton being sidelined is probably related to the administration’s decision to let the special representative for North Korea, Joseph Yun, retire and the reliance on a hawkish Andrew Kim, who is head of the CIA’s Korean operations, to act as liaison with North Korea.
Pompeo bypassed Susan Thornton and made use of the "NY Channel" run by Mark Lambert (red tie), one of few State Dept officials he relies on, per Yonhap. In fact, it was the NY Channel that contacted NK officials directly and arranged Kim Yong-chol's visit https://t.co/Ocly6Ig2y8
— Noon in Korea (@NoonInKorea) June 1, 2018
Hopefully, Mike Pompeo will be more successful at State than was Tillerson. But it would be hard to be less successful.