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Mike Pompeo’s passive-aggressive road to the national spotlight

Mike Pompeo wants to distance himself from Donald Trump, but he's apparently afraid to mention the former president's name.


Spend enough time on Twitter and you’ll inevitably see references to “subtweeting.” The precise meaning of the term varies a bit, but the Merriam-Webster definition is as good as any: “a usually mocking or critical tweet that alludes to another Twitter user without including a link to the user’s account and often without directly mentioning the user’s name.”

For example, if I were to publish a tweet that referenced, to borrow a phrase from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “a red-pilled billionaire going through a midlife crisis” who bought a social media company for $44 billion on impulse, everyone would know to whom I was referring. But if I specifically omitted the billionaire’s name, it would be an example of subtweeting.

Mike Pompeo seems to believe he can subtweet his way into the 2024 presidential race.

Nearly two weeks ago, for example, Donald Trump kicked off another national campaign, and in his meandering, brazenly dishonest remarks, the former president described himself as “a victim.” The next morning, his former secretary of state published this missive to Twitter:

“We need more seriousness, less noise, and leaders who are looking forward, not staring in the rearview mirror claiming victimhood.”

The Kansas Republican didn’t explicitly reference Trump, but in context, he didn’t have to. The message was hardly subtle. A couple of days later, he did it again with another tweet:

“We were told we’d get tired of winning. But I’m tired of losing. And so are most Republicans.”

Again, Pompeo didn’t mention Trump by name, but as a candidate in 2016, the former president promised Americans, “You’re going to get tired of winning.” It served as the obvious background for his former Cabinet secretary’s tweet.

The same week, Pompeo appeared at an event alongside other likely 2024 candidates and said that “personality, celebrity, just aren’t going to get it done.” Which “celebrity” did he have in mind? The former secretary of state didn’t say, though we could all figure it out easily.

Over the weekend, it happened once more. As Trump struggled to defend his dinner with two of the nation’s most notorious bigots, Pompeo returned to Twitter to declare, “Anti-Semitism is a cancer.”

It’s extremely unlikely that the timing of the missive was coincidental.

As a matter of political strategy, Pompeo’s moves are understandable. The ambitious former secretary of state wants to be taken seriously as a national figure, and he’s beginning to take steps toward a formal candidacy, but he doesn’t want to be tarnished by the former president, his administration’s many failures, or the Republican’s many scandals. It stands to reason that Pompeo would try to distance himself from Trump.

But at some point, Pompeo’s passive-aggressive posture will need to become far more direct. He was a sycophantic Trump ally for years, and if he wants to prove he’s his own man, subtweeting has its limits.

Here’s a challenge for Pompeo to consider: How about, the next time he targets Trump via social media, he includes the former president’s name?