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Democrats say Pompeo’s speech to RNC is unethical, hypocritical, and possibly illegal

The secretary of State last month admonished his staff not to improperly participate in politics or campaigns in this election year

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/pool)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to address the Republican National Convention on Tuesday elicited outrage from Democrats and former U.S. diplomats, who said the potential 2024 Republican contender was being a hypocrite and causing serious harm to longstanding State Department norms around apolitical service.

Pompeo recorded his address to the RNC on Monday in Jerusalem from the rooftop of the famous King David Hotel, where he was traveling on official business. A State Department spokesperson said the actual recording of the remarks did not involve taxpayer resources.

He will be the first modern sitting secretary of State to address a national political convention, breaking with decades of bipartisan norms that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”

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Pompeo is widely considered by Republicans a probable 2024 presidential candidate. His address with the Old City as a backdrop is notable as support for Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is highly prized by white evangelical voters, a crucial voting bloc for President Donald Trump and one that future GOP presidential contenders are expected to assiduously court.

“The decision by President Trump and Secretary Pompeo to stage a convention speech in Jerusalem continues a disturbing trend by Republicans to politicize the issue of Israel and try to weaponize the U.S.-Israel relationship for political gain,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn., who is widely seen among Democratic circles as a possible pick to be secretary of State should Biden win in November.

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot L. Engel of New York on Monday released two State Department documents, first reported by Politico, that appear to show Pompeo’s address will be in violation of the restrictions he himself promulgated to all State Department diplomats as recently as last month.

“Once again, the rules go out the window for Secretary Pompeo when they get in the way of serving his political interests and Donald Trump,” Engel said in a statement. “Mr. Pompeo should show real respect for American law, diplomacy, and diplomats, and should follow his own guidance.”

In a July 20 cable that went out to all U.S. embassies and consulates, Pompeo said: “It is important that the Department’s employees do not improperly engage the Department of State in the political process, and that they adhere to the Hatch Act and Department policies in their own political activities.”  

A December memo from the department’s Office of the Legal Adviser that was sent to “All Presidential Appointees and All Political Appointees” explicitly states it is prohibited for a Senate-confirmed appointee to attend a political convention.

“Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event,” the memo reads.

A State Department spokesperson in a statement provided on the condition of background said Pompeo would be addressing the convention in his personal capacity. “No State Department resources will be used. Staff are not involved in preparing the remarks or in the arrangements for Secretary Pompeo’s appearance,” the spokesperson said.

“Pompeo’s reported actions have strained norms, from his dinners with bigwigs to his housing situation,” said Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science specializing in international relations theory at University of Massachusetts Amherst. Musgrave was referring to the secretary’s push in 2018 to be granted a plush military housing assignment in a break with tradition that a recently revealed Navy memo called “problematic.”

“So it’s easy to say that this is harmful to norms, but at this point, I think the extent of the harm depends on reelection,” Musgrave continued. “If Trump loses, then the conventional wisdom will be that violating the norms has costs. If he wins, then all norms are up for grabs anyway.”

Democrats plan investigation

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, who leads the Foreign Affairs investigations subcommittee, announced he was opening an investigation into whether Pompeo violated the Hatch Act by speaking to the RNC.

“It is highly unusual, and likely unprecedented, for a sitting secretary of State to speak at a partisan convention for either of the political parties. It appears that it may also be illegal,” wrote Castro, who is running to succeed Engel as Foreign Affairs chairman, in a letter to Pompeo’s No. 2 at Foggy Bottom, Deputy Secretary Stephen Biegun.

Castro pressed Biegun to provide him by Sept. 1 with any internal legal guidance developed around Pompeo’s RNC address, the details around the guidance’s development, information on whether the Trump campaign or the RNC would reimburse the State Department for travel-related expenses from Pompeo’s trip to Israel and whether any Israeli officials had raised concerns about the partisan nature of the secretary’s speech and its possible impact on U.S. bipartisan support for Israel.

“The fact that a sitting secretary of State would give a speech like this is flat-out disgraceful,” said Bill Russo, a spokesman for the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “It is an abuse of taxpayer money. You know, this is part of apparently official travel, even if it is his personal time. It’s taxpayer money that got him there. It’s taxpayer money that is paying for his protection. There are certainly taxpayer funded staff on the ground and what this does is fundamentally undermines the incredibly important work that’s being done by the State Department.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Pompeo’s decision to address the RNC “appalling.”

“The image is something that’s going to say, ‘look at us, we’re here in Israel making a speech to the Republican National Convention, violating our values in terms of the bipartisanship and our support for Israel,’ violating in many ways what he told his own employees … it would be a violation of the law if they were to engage in partisan activities,” Pelosi said in an MSNBC interview.

As secretary, Pompeo and his wife, Susan, have used public funds to convene roughly two dozen elaborate “Madison Dinners,” with heavy attendance from GOP donors and conservative media figures and he has regularly met with private donors in unpublicized events during his official travel. The former three-term GOP House member has also used department resources for frequent trips to give speeches in his home state of Kansas as well as Iowa in July — the first state to hold a presidential nominating contest in 2024.

The former independent inspector general for the State Department, Steve Linick, was investigating whether Pompeo and his wife were improperly having department personnel run personal errands for them when the secretary persuaded Trump to fire him. Multiple House committees are now investigating the firing of Linick.

“I have trouble pulling together cogent thoughts other than to scream,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former Foreign Service Officer who left the State Department in late 2017 in protest of the Trump administration’s policies. “The suggestion that a secretary of State can do anything in his personal capacity is absurd. U.S. diplomats are told when they [head] out to a post that they are representing the United States 24 hours a day.”

Shackleford said the strictures of the Hatch Act, which limits federal employee participation in certain partisan political activities, can be difficult to abide by for diplomats and other federal employees but that the law ultimately serves a worthwhile purpose.

“It is really hard to do. It is one of the reasons that I decided to resign because I felt it was important to speak out and I knew it was illegal to speak out as long as I was in the administration,” said Shackelford, the author of the recent book “The Dissent Channel: American Diplomacy in a Dishonest Age.’”

If the norms that Pompeo, Trump and other senior administration officials have repeatedly violated are to be reasserted and upheld by future administrations, it will be important for Congress to hold offenders accountable, Shackelford said.

“Accountability is really key,” she continued. “Whether it is actual consequences on the offenders or just putting it on the record that those things broke the law, I think that is one way you can enforce those norms.”

Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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