Why do people think Mike Pompeo is going to primary Trump?

AP Photo/John Raoux

MAGA fans have been chattering about this:

Kurt Schlichter devoted an entire column to the idea today, arguing that Trump would stomp Pompeo (which is true) but that Pompeo should go ahead with his challenge anyway to keep Trump in fighting shape on the trail or whatever.

Why would Pompeo do any such thing?

There’s only one figure in the GOP capable of posing a meaningful challenge to Trump in a primary and that’s Ron DeSantis. He’d be a 100-to-one shot but he’s built enough populist credibility and has enough of a policy record to run on that he could *theoretically* prevail on electability grounds if he were to win big in his reelection bid in Florida next fall.

For any other Republican, the sole reason to primary Trump would be to weaken him ahead of a general election in the belief that the country can’t endure four years of him governing without any guardrails. You could do that from the center with a Larry Hogan type or you could do it from the right with a Liz Cheney. Either way, the point of that campaign would be to build a case for the 10-15 percent of Trump-skeptical Republican voters that under no circumstances can they return this man to office. The primary wouldn’t be a “primary” in any real way, just a pretext for the challenger to earn free media coverage to publicize the case against Trump.

And so I repeat: Why would Mike Pompeo run, knowing that he’d be doomed to a campaign like that?

Pompeo’s problem is that he’s neither fish nor fowl. He can’t compete with Trump for the populist vote the way DeSantis conceivably could because he has no real populist bona fides apart from his attachment to Trump himself. His early successes in politics came as a traditional pre-Trump Republican. He has a patina of MAGA cred now after having worked for Trump in two top cabinet positions, but if you’re a Trump fan who’d care about that sort of thing, why would you prefer Pompeo to the man who appointed him? Especially once Trump inevitably starts belittling Pompeo by calling him the worst Secretary of State ever, dumber than Rex Tillerson, and so on.

On the other hand, if you’re a Trump-skeptical Republican, why would you warm up to a guy who served him loyally for four years and who undoubtedly wouldn’t make as sharp a case against Trump during a primary campaign as, say, Cheney would? Pompeo’s problem is that he’d have to distinguish himself from Trump somehow to please the anti-Trump minority without distinguishing himself so much that he alienates the large pro-Trump majority. How does he do that? If he argues that Trump’s policies sucked, well, he helped shape those policies at CIA and State. If he argues that Trump’s policies were terrific but the man himself is too flawed to be trusted with power, he’ll be accused of insulting the right’s hero. Either way, he’ll be tagged as “disloyal.”

So if the MAGAs don’t trust him and the anti-Trumpers don’t trust him, who is his constituency? If he’s not willing to go at Trump with hammer and tongs like Cheney would in order to weaken him, what would be the point of running?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear that Pompeo wants to run in 2024. But so does DeSantis. So do Nikki Haley and Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton and a dozen others. But they’re not going to follow through if running would do them more harm than good, and it would. They’d be cast as “traitors to Trump” or whatever and “doing the Democrats’ dirty work for them.” (The argument that Trump needs a primary challenger to hone him won’t last a day once someone jumps in.) In the end they’d lose badly and will have alienated so many MAGA voters by campaigning against Trump that they’ll be DOA in a 2028 or 2032 primary. I don’t know why Pompeo thinks he stands a chance of winning the Republican presidential nomination but to the extent that he’s right his chances are certainly better in a Trump-less field than head to head against Trump himself.

So if Trump runs, as we all now expect, why wouldn’t Pompeo reluctantly pass on 2024 like everyone else and preserve his viability for 2028?

The best I can do to talk myself into believing that he might ignore all of the above and challenge Trump anyway is that his political instincts don’t seem great. The obvious move for Pompeo if he wanted to keep himself in the conversation among Republicans for future national leaders would have been to make Mitch McConnell happy by running for Senate in Kansas last year. He passed and now he’s out of office with no way to stay relevant for the next three years except Fox News hits. If he’s capable of making a mistake like that, maybe he’s capable of letting his itchiness to be president lead him into an ill-conceived primary against Trump.

But I doubt it. He’s a smart guy. My guess is the “Pompeo wants to primary Trump” rumors are some sort of revenge op by his enemies within MAGAworld to turn Trump fans against him. Some of the books that came out this summer about the post-election period have depicted Pompeo as an ally of Mark Milley, with the two holding daily conference calls with Mark Meadows to ensure that “come hell or high water, there will be a peaceful transfer of power on January twentieth.” Pompeo allegedly told Milley a few weeks before the election, “You know the crazies are taking over.” (Pompeo denies this, of course.) If Trump now believes that Pompeo was “disloyal” in failing to support his attempt to overturn the election then go figure that his allies would want to retaliate.

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