Pompeo accused of stumping for Trump ahead of election
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is positioning himself as a key surrogate for President Trump weeks before the election, an almost unheard-of role for the U.S.’s top diplomat but one the former Republican congressman has embraced as part of his own future political ambitions.
Pompeo was in Wisconsin on Wednesday to address Republican lawmakers in the state legislature in a trip that was ostensibly about foreign policy. But his visit has drawn criticism for promoting the president’s agenda in a key swing state just 40 days before the election.
“I’m sure he’ll argue that he’s just talking about national security and foreign policy to an American audience, and he is. But he’s doing it in the midst of the most partisan political time of the four years of this presidency,” said Wendy Sherman, the director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School who previously served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration.
Wisconsin is among the most hotly contested electoral battlegrounds this year. Trump carried the state in 2016 by fewer than 23,000 votes, or less than 1 percentage point, and Biden is making an aggressive play there in an effort to reestablish the so-called Midwestern “blue wall” that came crashing down for Hillary Clinton four years ago.
Pompeo’s trip to Wisconsin adds to a growing list of engagements that critics say blur the lines between his role as the nation’s top diplomat and a Trump campaign surrogate.
Last month, the secretary addressed the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem while on official diplomatic travel, a move that critics point out violated Pompeo’s own guidelines banning State Department employees from participating in political events. The speech has since spurred an investigation by House Democrats over whether he violated the Hatch Act.
Pompeo’s visit to Wisconsin comes as two other Trump administration officials travel to the Badger State this week. Attorney General William Barr made a stop in Milwaukee on Tuesday in what was also billed as official federal business; Vice President Pence is set to speak in Eau Claire on Thursday.
Pompeo, who spoke on Wednesday about U.S. policy toward China, sold his speech as an alert to the American people to all the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the institutions they are targeting.
“Democrat, Republican, independent, you have a friend in the Trump administration to help you push back against the CCP exploitation of our open society,” Pompeo said in his speech on Wednesday.
Wisconsin State Senate President Roger Roth (R) said he invited Pompeo to address the legislature and remarked that “never” had a secretary of State visited the state Capitol.
And the secretary’s remarks are likely being watched closely in Beijing, where government officials and Chinese state-backed media routinely attack Pompeo as a liar and have at times called him the enemy of humanity.
“U.S. national security, of which the State Department is a critical element, is not a partisan issue,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former undersecretary of State for management and career State Department official. “The Secretary of State should not be engaging in partisan politics.”
But critics say the visits have clear political undertones, arguing that they are intended to play up Trump’s presidential record in a state where polls show him trailing Biden by widening margins. One poll from CNBC and Change Research released on Wednesday found Biden with a 9-point lead in Wisconsin.
“Pompeo knows what he’s doing, every international observer knows what he’s doing and Americans know what he’s doing. He’s blatantly crossing ethical lines,” said Andrew Albertson, the executive director of the political nonprofit Foreign Policy for America and a former USAID official.
Wisconsin Senate Democrats were absent at the secretary’s remarks, said state Senate Minority Leader Janet Bewley (D), who did not attend over concerns the event violated health guidelines for the COVID-19 pandemic limiting the number of people at indoor gatherings.
Philip Shulman, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, said Pompeo’s visit was the latest example of how the secretary of State has “abused his office to give Trump political cover and to cover up for the tremendous damage Trump has done to Wisconsin.”
Pompeo’s trip to Wisconsin is likely to come under scrutiny of Democrats in Washington, who have looked on with alarm at the secretary’s actions with the view that he is using the agency to prepare for a possible 2024 presidential campaign.
“Campaigning for President Trump with taxpayer resources is just the latest example of Secretary Pompeo’s willingness to break the law and put his political interest above our national interest,” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who is investigating the legality of Pompeo’s prerecorded speech at the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem, wrote in an email to The Hill.
Pompeo has said that the State Department’s legal team cleared him to make the speech from Jerusalem and that he did so in his personal capacity and not as secretary of State — which critics see as a distinction without a difference.
Democrats are working to see what government resources were used as part of his participation, such as the federal flight to Israel and his use of diplomatic security while recording his remarks.
A congressional aide working on the investigation said Pompeo’s trip to Wisconsin, and an earlier trip to Texas — where he spoke at a Baptist church on Sunday — “are a continuation of Secretary’s Pompeo’s unlawful politicization of the State Department.”
A State Department spokesperson reached out after publication saying that the secretary’s remarks to the Wisconsin state Senate was an “important policy speech” on the need to be “vigilant against the Chinese Communist Party’s malign influence at the subnational level” and said it fell in the same category as Pompeo’s remarks delivered to the National Governors Association in February.
“Clearly, House Democrats and the media are unfamiliar with the domestic aspect of the Department of State’s mission, as evidenced by their complaints every time the Secretary meets with Americans in different parts of the country—unless it’s visits to Silicon Valley or somewhere along the Acela corridor,” the spokesperson said.
Pompeo gave a speech in January in California to the Silicon Valley Leadership Group.
“The Secretary’s job is to lead the State Department in executing on the foreign policy priorities President Trump has established to serve the American people. Communicating our mission directly to the American people is one of the most important ways of strengthening it.”
Pompeo has come under numerous probes over whether he has used federal resources for personal or political gain. He was cleared in one by the Office of Special Counsel that found multiple trips to his home state of Kansas fell within State Department regulations.
At that time, Pompeo was under pressure by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to run for the open Senate seat in that state.
Other activities by the secretary tinged with politics include his appearances at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a reported side trip in Florida in January to meet with key Republican political officials and a speech to the Family Leader Summit in Iowa in July — viewed as a key stop for Republican presidential candidates.
The secretary has also come under scrutiny for so-called Madison Dinners, formal events defended by the administration as foreign policy social gatherings meant to enhance the understanding of the State Department’s work.
But Democrats have argued that with them Pompeo is using federal resources as a launching pad for the secretary’s political future.
Critics say Pompeo’s overtly political actions disregard long-standing bipartisan tradition of U.S. foreign affairs, where politics end at the water’s edge.
“What Mike Pompeo’s done by politicizing the office is actually diluting significantly his influence on the world stage because foreign leaders don’t believe he’s speaking for both parties, they don’t believe he has the support of both parties, and that is detrimental to his ability to extract concessions, to make progress,” said Brett Bruen, a former State Department official.
Updated on Thursday, Sept. 24, at 11:55 a.m.
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