My email pinged. "Phone me soonest," it said. It was from a very well connected contact of mine. So I did. I like to oblige, you see. "The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is visiting London next week. I've recommended he does an interview with you and you'll soon receive an email from his team. Over to you." I blustered some inadequate thanks, ended the call, and realised that this might be my biggest interview of the year - and it's only the end of January."

Madam Secretary

I then thought, rather ridiculously: "I wonder how much he's like Elizabeth McCord." She's the character played by Tea Leoni in the US series Madam Secretary -  a series I only started watching a few weeks ago and have become addicted to. (I'm on episode 61 of 120!). 

The email duly arrived and a few minutes later I was on the phone to Foggy Bottom. For the uninitiated, Foggy Bottom is the area of Washington DC is home to the State Department. I remember visiting it many years ago for a meeting with Colleen Graffy, who was then Under Secretary in the George W Bush Administration. It's one of the ugliest buildings in Washington DC.

How long would I like with the Secretary of State? I was asked. Twenty minutes, I said, or preferably longer, but I realise how busy he is. "You've got ten minutes," came the reply. Well, I always try to push my luck in these negotiations.


It also became clear that this would be the only UK broadcast interview the Secretary would be doing with the UK media. No pressure, then...

We talked about issues which I might like to bring up, but no demands were put on me.

The problem with interviews like this is that so much can happen before it actually takes place, that it might never happen at all. Events, dear boy...

I thought about not telling anyone but my producer, just in case it never came off, but given we would want to film it, I knew our video team would require as much notice as possible.

So what would I do in the ten minutes available to me? Normally, I don't like to prepare a raft of questions. I like my interviews to be free-flowing and to think on my feet. That would have been a mistake here. I had ten minutes, so I had to make the most of them.


I decided to ask about the UK/US relationship post Brexit - which was, after all, why he was here. To then move on to the Harry Dunn case and the Ann Sacoolas extradition, and Huawei. I'd then end on an 'and finally' question. 

I had loads of others prepared on China, Iran, impeachment, his NPR interview, but I doubted there would be time. 

As usual in these circumstances, I had a bit of a sleepless night before the interview. I'd listened to the NPR radio interview Mike Pompeo had done a week earlier, which ended rather frostily when the journalist asked questions the Secretary didn't like. Indeed, afterwards he had allegedly bawled her out in his office using the 'F' word rather liberally. He denies it, but the journalist was then banned from his press corps. 

On Thursday morning, I went to a Policy Exchange event hosted by Dean Godson at which Pompeo and Dominic Raab were speaking in an In Conversation format. It proved to be quite useful, although I was a bit miffed when Jason Groves from the Daily Mail asked the exact same question I had thought about asking the Secretary of State - how about a 'prisoner swap'? We send you Prince Andrew, you send us Ann Sacoolas. In fact, when Jason asked it, it, it just didn't feel right, so I'm glad I didn't do it.

I then got a car to the hotel where Pompeo and his team were staying and met up with Sandra, my producer and our four person video and sound team. The only other interviews Mike Pompeo was doing was with Charles Moore from the Telegraph and Sky Arabia. Nothing with the BBC, ITV or Sky News. I realised this was a big deal. 

We were taken up to the eighth floor and show into a room where a blue curtain and a US flag had been set up for the interview. Us on one side, Sky Arabia on the other. They went first. After what seemed a very short time, it was our turn. 

As I walked into the room, Mike Pompeo was already seated. I sat down, said hello, and off we went. I'd asked Sandra to signal to me when we were half way. 

We cantered around Brexit and the Special Relationship and he gave a very trenchant answer on the agricultural side of a potential free trade agreement. He was much tougher in his language on Britain's decision on Huawei than he had been at Policy Exchange. On Ann Sacoolas he gave his best answer yet and was far more emollient, and it led one of my colleagues to wonder whether a reversal of the decision not to extradite her might be in the offing. I doubt it.

I then suddenly saw Sandra signal 'one minute'. No way, I thought, surely we're only half way through. But I know that I'm a terrible judge of time in interviews. I asked him a question on the Middle East Peace Plan and then said the immortal words: "A final question..."


And with that a rather fierce looking press official intervened and said: "No, there's no time. We have to go..." And she clearly wasn't messing. 

I have to say I've never been intervened on like that, and was none too pleased given I didn't think we'd had our allotted ten minutes, but she was clearly brooking no argument.

As the Secretary of State was being de-miced I told him what my question would have been: "What's most like real life - West Wing, Veep or Madam Secretary?" He roared with laughter and said it would be between Veep and Madam Secretary, and then added: "What I think we can probably both agree on is that Tea Leoni didn't vote Trump!" I suspect he's right.

And with that, he and his team had gone to catch their plane to the Ukraine.

Whenever I do big interviews like this, I am a terrible judge as to whether I've got any newslines out of them. I remember being very depressed after an interview in Number Ten with Theresa May, thinking I had got nothing out of her. "Are you mad?" said my producer? "In a 12 minute interview you got four news stories."

In the nine minutes with Pompeo (I was right - we didn't get our full ten minutes) I got two very strong lines on chlorinated chicken and Huawei, plus some good stuff on Ann Sacoolas. But I knew the media was already running with what he said at Policy Exchange. 

Anyway, it's not often you get to sit down with the fourth in line to the Presidency.

So what did I think of Mike Pompeo? I liked him more than I expected to, I thought he was a polished performer in that he didn't give overly long answers and gave some meat in each of his answers. He also had presence. 

I wish I could have had longer with him. I had established a bond with him in the nine minutes I had available to me. I think a longer interview would have provided much more. But hey, beggars can't be choosers.