House Democrats will launch an investigation into whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s planned address to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday night violates State Department policies and laws that prohibit federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities, The Daily Beast reported Tuesday afternoon.
Pompeo’s unprecedented speech, which is being taped in Jerusalem during a foreign tour as part of his official duties as America’s top diplomat, would mark the first time a sitting secretary of state has addressed a political convention in recent memory, and is another sordid episode in the Trump administration’s effort to turn every aspect of American foreign policy into a blatant tool for domestic political gain.
But while it’s definitely a break from tradition ― Condoleezza Rice avoided the RNC in 2004, even at the height of the Bush administration’s efforts to politicize the War on Terror, and former secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry skipped Democratic conventions in 2012 and 2016, respectively ― the speech has also dismayed diplomats and State Department officials who’ve argued that his appearance is a blatant violation of the Hatch Act, the federal law in question.
Pompeo’s address, The Associated Press reported, will focus on President Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy, and he tweeted that he’s “looking forward to sharing with you how my family is more SAFE and more SECURE because of President Trump.”
State Department officials insisted to AP and Reuters this week that Pompeo’s speech is not ethically or legally problematic because he will address the convention in his “personal capacity,” rather than as secretary of state.
“What the hell does that mean?” one former Trump administration official, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said in an interview with HuffPost. “What personal capacity does a secretary of State have outside of, say, the bathroom?”
Democrats on the Hill were similarly aghast.
“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,” Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement about the speech.
Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), the chairman of the subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun on Tuesday that he would lead a probe into whether Pompeo’s speech violates the law and State Department protocol, The Daily Beast reported.
The Foreign Affairs committee obtained State Department documents this week that show Pompeo sent a cable to employees reminding them to avoid partisan political activities, and reiterated that “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event.” (State Department officials told AP that legal advisers reviewed and signed off on Pompeo’s speech, while Politico reported that officials have suggested that because the speech is prerecorded, it doesn’t necessarily count as “attending” the convention.)
The idea that “politics stop at the water’s edge” has always been a bit naive, but under Trump and Pompeo, the line between foreign affairs and domestic politics has blurred to the point that they’re indistinguishable.
“Everything is being politicized and used for electoral advantage,” the former administration official said. “All aspects of what an administration does are going to be used for its electoral aims in some fashion. But the question is who’s doing it, and how he’s using it.”
In 2019, Pompeo delivered a speech in Cairo that spent as much time lambasting the Middle East policy of President Barack Obama as it did laying out the Trump administration’s view of the world, a clear sign that under Pompeo’s direction, U.S. foreign policy would be driven by the political whims and grudges of a president with little knowledge of or interest in the world.
“In nearly 25 years of working for half a dozen administrations — both Republican and Democratic — I never saw one so obsessed with defining itself against the successes and failures of another,” Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington and a longtime U.S. diplomat, wrote of the speech. When he did focus on actual policy, Pompeo outlined an approach to the Middle East that was “highly moralistic, muscular and far too black-and-white for a region better suited to gray,” Miller wrote.
Overtly political and overly simplistic have defined U.S. foreign policy on Pompeo and Trump’s watch, and the site of Pompeo’s RNC speech is yet another example: In December 2017, the Trump administration relocated the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, officially recognizing the latter as the Israeli capital. It was a controversial and complex decision (one future Democratic administrations are unlikely to reverse) that, under Trump, was made almost solely with domestic politics in mind.
“That’s for the evangelicals,” Trump said of the embassy move in a stump speech earlier this month, admitting that it was a political giveaway to voters who’ve long wanted the embassy moved. “The evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people.”
Closer to home, Trump’s attempts to oust leftist Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and his simultaneous rollback of Obama’s efforts to normalize relations with Cuba’s communist government are widely regarded as a nakedly political maneuver to drive out Cuban and Venezuelan-American voters in Florida this fall. (Trump has empowered a longtime lobbyist and political operative to design a “maximum pressure” strategy that has proven empty as a foreign policy but potentially useful as an electoral cudgel.)
Trump was also impeached less than a year ago for overtly blending foreign policy and his reelection efforts. Last July, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor” by digging up dirt on Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic nominee Joe Biden, over businesses the younger Biden was involved with in the country. His February impeachment apparently didn’t put a stop to the practice: This July, Brazilian newspapers reported that Todd Chapman, Trump’s ambassador to Brazil, asked the Brazilian government to relax ethanol tariffs in order to boost Trump’s reelection campaign in Iowa.
House Democrats also raised concerns about potential political interference after Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, tweeted a campaign-style video promoting Trump’s reelection.
“After everything that occurred in the U.S. presidential election in 2016,” Engel wrote in a letter to Chapman, “we frankly believe that you should know better.”
Pompeo’s appearance at the RNC is another example of his “repeated and blatant use of his office for overtly political purposes,” Kate Bedingfield, the Biden campaign’s deputy campaign manager, said Tuesday, according to USA Today.
“Every day America’s diplomats abroad proudly represent our country — not a political party — but Mike Pompeo’s repeated and blatant use of his office for overtly political purposes only serves to undercut their work, and it further weakens the critical alliances and global relationships that have already been so badly damaged by this administration’s recklessness,” she said.