“What he is doing is entirely unconventional,” said Harry Kopp, an author of books about U.S. diplomacy. He added, however, “The employees of the State Department have, by now, I think, no illusions about the partisan nature of their secretary of State.”
On Wednesday, Pompeo will visit Wisconsin, a critical swing state, to deliver a speech in its state Capitol. The speech is ostensibly about foreign policy, but considering the presidential election is just weeks away, Pompeo’s appearance is arguably his clearest brush-off yet of critics who accuse him of politicizing his office.
Just last month, while on an official trip to Jerusalem, Pompeo broke with tradition observed by his modern predecessors and delivered remarks to the Republican National Convention. On Sunday, Pompeo visited the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, to speak to a Baptist mega-church, where he declared to a Trump-friendly audience that “faith in the public square is not only lawful, but righteous.” In the coming weeks, he’ll be hosting at least three more “Madison Dinners” – events that some State Department staffers complain are about promoting his political brand, not U.S. diplomacy.
Aides to Pompeo did not respond to a set of questions repeatedly submitted by POLITICO for this article, including about the campaign rally episode last fall, whether Pompeo has drafted new regulations that allow him to take part in partisan-tinged activities, and who came up with the idea for the visit to Wisconsin. A Trump campaign spokesman also did not respond to requests for comment.
Critics allege that Pompeo is misusing his taxpayer-funded position and amenities to boost Trump’s campaign while raising his own profile with Trump’s electoral base in case he someday runs for president. Some speculate that Pompeo may not stick around much longer as secretary of State, even if Trump wins in November, because he will need to start building his own campaign and funding infrastructure for 2024.
Pompeo has engaged in politically flavored activities even though he’s come under multiple investigations, one of which cleared him, about how he’s using his government position. Besides, Trump has made it clear he won’t punish anyone for using government resources for partisan ends, despite laws against such activities. The president himself used the White House to stage parts of this year’s GOP convention.
“People become brazen when there are no consequences,” said Philippe Reines, a longtime adviser to former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. “Pompeo is brazen. But he also knows how to play the game and knows how to protect himself.”
A gray zone
Pompeo has his defenders, some of whom say the incidents are being blown out of proportion.
Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary for the George W. Bush administration, disagreed with Pompeo’s decision to speak to the Republican convention, but he had no issues with the Madison Dinners or the Wisconsin visit.
“I will take Mike Pompeo in Wisconsin any day over John Kerry in Tehran no matter what,” Fleischer said, with a dig at the Obama-era secretary of State, who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal (although not in Tehran). Fleischer added that whispers about Pompeo’s political future were just a “silly Washington speculation game.”
Pompeo, too, insists he’s within his legal rights – he often uses phrases like “as required by law” – but won’t get into specifics. During the church visit, he said, “As the secretary of State, I’m not allowed to do politics, but I can do duty” in urging the audience to vote.
Still, to anyone who watches Pompeo closely, it’s clear he’s increasingly operating in a gray zone while edging toward outright violation of the rules and traditions that modern secretaries of State have tried to respect. He’s done so despite pressure from Democrats in Congress and even though he and his wife, Susan, are under investigation by the State Department inspector general’s office and in Congress over their use of department resources. (Pompeo insists those probes are politically motivated and that he and his wife have done nothing wrong.)
While there are legal prohibitions on using tax dollars for partisan causes, secretaries of State have traditionally avoided domestic politics for another reason: to promote the idea that they, and by implication U.S. foreign policy, represent the whole country, not just one party.
Thus, secretaries of State typically avoid talking about U.S. domestic politics or attending events linked to a party.
Pompeo made a name for himself in Washington by acting in a highly partisan fashion. He came to the capital as a congressman from Kansas, winning the seat on the Tea Party wave of 2010. He was a loud critic of the Obama administration and appeared to take special delight in attacking Clinton, especially over the 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Pompeo was one of two Republicans who effectively rejected their GOP colleagues’ findings on the Benghazi affair, issuing their own report that was harsher on Clinton.
Pompeo’s first position in the Trump administration was as CIA chief, and at times he was reported to make agency officials uncomfortable with his willingness to let his partisan instincts affect his views on controversial issues.
He left that role in spring 2018 to take over the State Department, where he’s chafed at often-detailed restrictions on the political activities of diplomats such as himself. In September 2018, he surprised many by speaking at the Values Voter Summit, a gathering of conservative activists that draws many prominent Republican speakers.
In the months since, Pompeo has drawn attention for how frequently he travels inside the United States. Those trips have included stops in presidential battleground states such as Iowa, as well as several visits to Kansas at a time when Pompeo was flirting with a Senate run from the state.
Pompeo also has spoken at domestic events that seem to cater to key parts of the GOP base, especially evangelical voters. Last October, he gave a speech titled “Being a Christian Leader” to the American Association of Christian Counselors in Tennessee. This past February, Pompeo spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a popular venue for aspiring Republican presidential contenders.
Pompeo and his aides have defended these appearances by citing the official reasons for them and insisting they are following the letter of the law.
Often, the official reason given for a Pompeo appearance is to promote awareness of the State Department’s mission and activities. In the case of the Republican convention speech — a pre-recorded video delivered from the rooftop of the storied King David Hotel overlooking Jerusalem — the department insisted Pompeo was speaking in his “personal capacity.”
At the Values Voter Summit, Pompeo spoke about advocating for religious liberty, an important issue to evangelicals that also is a human rights priority of the State Department under Trump. On his fourth visit to Kansas in 2019, Pompeo joined Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, for an event on workforce development. Having a strong U.S. workforce, Pompeo said, was relevant to his job because “without a robust and successful economy, other nations won’t respect us.”
For the visit to the Texas church this past weekend, the State Department initially said Pompeo planned to “discuss Department of State priorities.” But while Pompeo did talk about religious liberty, much of the speech was about himself, his faith and how he blends it with his work.
Pompeo’s visits to Kansas drew complaints from prominent Democrats in Congress, including Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who asked a federal watchdog unit, the Office of Special Counsel, to review them. The OSC eventually told Pompeo that it had “no evidence” to conclude he was violating the Hatch Act, a statute prohibiting executive branch officials from campaigning on the taxpayers’ dime. OSC also noted that Pompeo had ultimately decided not to run for the Senate seat.
A pair of law professors, one of whom served as a top ethics adviser to George W. Bush, have since asked the OSC to look again at Pompeo, this time for his speech to the Republican convention.
Pompeo’s use of his office has drawn heightened scrutiny since last fall, when impeachment proceedings against the president kicked into high gear.
Lawmakers accused Pompeo of partisanship when his department failed to hand over any documents to House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry. They also accused Pompeo of hypocrisy given how much he pressured the State Department to hand over materials related to the Benghazi attack when he was a congressman.
More recently, the State Department quickly produced thousands of documents for Republicans investigating Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival in November’s election, while ignoring Democrats’ requests for the material. That led House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) to pursue contempt proceedings against Pompeo. On Friday, Engel said the State Department had finally handed over the Biden-related documents; he will be dropping the contempt proceedings.
House Democrats also are investigating Pompeo’s role in the mid-May firing of Steve Linick, who had served as the State Department’s inspector general since 2013. The inspector general’s office had been – and still is – investigating whether Mike and Susan Pompeo have used taxpayer resources for their own personal benefit. That includes asking State Department employees to run errands for them, including helping produce their personal Christmas cards, according to aides’ interviews with congressional investigators.
The probe also may cover the Madison Dinners, which were first reported in detail by NBC News. The dinners are fancy, intimate gatherings, some two dozen of which were held before the coronavirus pandemic but which weren’t listed on Pompeo’s public schedule. They gathered prominent people from many spheres, but relatively few diplomats or State Department officials other than Pompeo.
Aides to Pompeo insist the dinners are about promoting the department. Critics say they are about building his Rolodex of future supporters and campaign donors, with help from public funds.
“I hope someone at the State Department is keeping track of how much this abuse is costing taxpayers,” Engel said in a statement to POLITICO. “When this administration finally comes to an end, he ought to get an invoice.”
Earlier this month, despite the ongoing pandemic and public criticism, Pompeo resumed hosting the Madison Dinners. The guests at the first dinner, held last Monday, included Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, as reported by NBC News.
Current and former State Department employees have watched Pompeo’s moves with growing dismay. Still, many of them were surprised that Pompeo would go so far as to show up in Wisconsin just weeks before the election.
“He’s not even trying to be discreet,” one senior U.S. diplomat said. “It’s completely shameless.”
Patrick Kennedy, a former undersecretary of State for management, said Pompeo shouldn’t go to the swing state. “It sends a message that the State Department is not the non-partisan institution that it has been for more than 200 years,” Kennedy said.
Did he change the rules?
Pompeo’s recent moves have confused many State Department employees about what is and isn’t permissible in terms of diplomats and political activity.
According to the congressional aide, the episode involving the Trump rally last fall led State Department acting legal adviser Marik String to sign off on a memo presenting Pompeo with two options: keeping the tight restrictions the State Department has long had on such activity, or rolling some of them back so Pompeo could engage in more political activity. At the time, Pompeo decided to keep the tight restrictions, according to the congressional aide, who learned of the situation from people inside the State Department.
During the recent hearing, Castro asked String about the incident last fall. String indicated that he didn’t remember the details, saying: “As I recall, there was a period in 2019 when that issue that you raised came up and it was reviewed.” String is an increasingly controversial figure at the department, and his appointment to the legal office as well as some of his maneuverings have drawn scrutiny from lawmakers.
In December, some updates were made to State Department legal memos laying out the restrictions on diplomats’ political activities, but the rules still clearly barred Senate-confirmed presidential appointees, such as Pompeo, from participating in party conventions.
In February, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun emailed State Department employees to remind them of their obligation to avoid partisan political activity, especially if they were overseas. Months later, a cable dated July 24 from the secretary himself was sent to all posts reminding them of the same restrictions. Both the February and July notes referred to the memos that were updated in December.
A month after the July cable, State Department employees were stunned to watch Pompeo deliver his pre-recorded speech to the GOP convention.
What remains unclear is if Pompeo decided to change the State Department’s rules in the month that lapsed between the July cable and the Republican convention. Pompeo has relatively wide latitude to adjust State Department rules and regulations, but within the limits of laws such as the Hatch Act that are designed to bar tax dollars from being used for campaign activities.
State Department officials have not responded to questions about what changes, if any, Pompeo has made to the rules.
They have instead insisted that Pompeo spoke to the convention in his “personal capacity” and that no State Department resources were used. But they haven’t explained how that is possible given that Pompeo was on an official trip to the Middle East, always has security with him, and used a government-funded aircraft to reach Jerusalem, where he taped his remarks.
Pompeo himself keeps saying the lawyers signed off on it. “All I can say in my role as secretary of State is the State Department reviewed this, it was lawful, and I personally felt it was important that the world hear the message of what this administration has accomplished,” he said.
Some U.S. diplomats point out that, a year and a half ago, Pompeo established a State Department “ethos statement” that he expects his workforce to live up to. As the 2020 election gets closer, many of those diplomats believe he’s ignoring that ethos.
“I act with uncompromising personal and professional integrity,” the ethos statement says. “I take ownership of and responsibility for my actions and decisions. And I show unstinting respect in word and deed for my colleagues and all who serve alongside me.”