State Department scrutiny threatens Pompeo's political ambitions

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoHillicon Valley: Trump backs potential Microsoft, TikTok deal, sets September deadline | House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing | Facebook labels manipulated Pelosi video Top House Republicans request classified TikTok briefing Democrats subpoena top aides to Pompeo MORE is facing a critical test with brewing scandals at the State Department that threaten to derail any future political ambitions.

Pompeo has proved to be one of President TrumpDonald John TrumpWhite House sued over lack of sign language interpreters at coronavirus briefings Wife blames Trump, lack of masks for husband's coronavirus death in obit: 'May Karma find you all' Trump authorizes reduced funding for National Guard coronavirus response through 2020 MORE’s most loyal lieutenants, surviving Democratic probes into the impeachment investigation, military confrontation with Iran and the coronavirus pandemic.

He was once considered a shoo-in to fill the seat of retiring Sen. Pat RobertsCharles (Pat) Patrick RobertsThe Hill's Campaign Report: What to watch for in Tuesday's primaries Senate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  GOP scrambles to fend off Kobach in Kansas primary MORE (R-Kans.), an offer he officially passed on, and has been floated as a potential presidential candidate for 2024.

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But the unfolding drama around his conduct at the State Department has given his critics new ammo as they look into whether he improperly used his position for political gain.

Among the controversies facing him is a Thursday report by The New York Times that Pompeo secretly met with high-profile Republican donors in Florida on the sidelines of an official State Department trip in January.

The secretary is also under scrutiny for hosting lavish dinners, funded by taxpayer dollars, that included business and conservative heavyweights more influential on domestic politics than foreign policy. The dinners were first reported by NBC News.

And Pompeo’s push for Trump to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick this month sparked outrage from Democrats, who said the internal watchdog was looking into at least two investigations involving the secretary and that his dismissal could amount to illegal political retaliation.

The probes were exploring whether Pompeo misused a political appointee for personal errands and what the secretary’s role was in Trump’s use of an emergency declaration to sell billions of dollars of weapons to Saudi Arabia without congressional authorization.

Pompeo reportedly pushed State Department officials to justify the president's issue of the declaration in May 2019, suggesting the decision to sell arms came first and the reasoning second, CNN reported Thursday.

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Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezVOA visa decision could hobble Venezuela coverage Bottom line Koch-backed group urges Senate to oppose 'bailouts' of states in new ads MORE (N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelUSAID appointee alleges 'rampant anti-Christian sentiment' at agency Democrats subpoena top aides to Pompeo Obama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements MORE (D-N.Y.) have launched an investigation into Linick’s firing.

That effort was later bolstered by House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyTrump suggests revote in New York congressional primary amid slow ballot count House committee requests hearing with postmaster general amid mail-in voting concerns Democrats subpoena top aides to Pompeo MORE (D-N.Y.), who condemned Pompeo’s actions and called for Linick’s reinstatement.

Critics of Pompeo have often accused him of politicizing his role as the nation’s top diplomat, arguing his four terms as a Republican congressman from Kansas have influenced his approach to the Cabinet position.

He made four trips to Kansas last year, three on official State Department business, at a time when many thought he would run for the open Senate seat.

That travel drew criticism from Menendez, who pushed in October for the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) to open a review into whether Pompeo violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal officials from engaging in political activity.

The review appeared to fizzle out in January when Pompeo told Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellProfessional sports players associations come out against coronavirus liability protections Democratic leaders report 'some progress' in talks with White House Top GOP senator urges agencies to protect renters, banks amid coronavirus aid negotiations MORE (R-Ky.) he would not run for the Senate. The OSC confirmed to The Hill that a case was opened at the request of Menendez but declined to comment on the status.

But with a June 1 filing deadline for the Senate, the increased scrutiny on Pompeo’s tenure at the State Department has led to renewed speculation over his next political move.

The Kansas City Star’s editorial board on Thursday tore into the secretary, saying reports of his lavish dinners charged to the federal government should make him “damaged goods” in his home state should he decide to run for Senate. But the editorial board also noted that those actions might not have an impact in the end.

“And if, at some point in the next 10 days before the filing deadline, Pompeo suddenly discovers that his heart really is in this Kansas Senate race, we’re sorry to say that in a time of such severe scandal deflation, voters might not find Pompeo’s behavior disqualifying, either,” the editorial board wrote.

That view is shared in part by Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, who said the news reports surrounding Pompeo are unlikely to have an effect on his political ambitions unless they rise to the level of a career-ending scandal.

“It’s that kind of inside-the-Beltway stuff that, generally, people don’t care about,” Hagle said. “Do voters care about this? The answer’s usually no. They care about kitchen table issues — jobs, economy, health care. And that’s even more the case now.”

Pompeo is expected to make a trip to Iowa in July to speak at an event with The Family Leader, a conservative Christian group that has clout with the Republican Party. The organization hosted both Trump and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzOn The Trail: The first signs of a post-Trump GOP Trump tests GOP loyalty with election tweet and stimulus strategy Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election MORE (R-Texas) while they were campaigning for the White House in 2016.

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Pompeo’s appearance was originally scheduled for March but postponed as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the U.S.

But the eventual trip will be the secretary’s second to Iowa in as many years, having traveled to the state in March 2019 to promote Trump’s trade policy with China alongside U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, Iowa's former governor. 

The planned trip comes amid growing speculation that Pompeo will consider a White House bid in 2024, especially if he were to skip the Kansas Senate seat. But some GOP strategists say Congress is the better place to be if he’s considering a White House run down the line.

“If Secretary Pompeo wants to mount a bid for president at some point in the future, politically it would make more sense to go back to Capitol Hill, be in the Senate and build the domestic portfolio now that he has much higher visibility,” said Jason Miller, a Republican strategist who served as a Trump campaign spokesman in 2016.

“But he might decide that serving President Trump and staying in that space might be what he wants to do,” Miller added.

The last president who previously served as secretary of State was James Buchanan, in 1856.

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Pompeo’s close bond with Trump could serve him well if he delves back into politics. The president has rewarded administration officials who promote and defend his actions.

Hagle, of the University of Iowa, said Pompeo’s position as secretary of State allows more visibility to potential voters nationwide.

If Trump wins reelection, Pompeo could leave his Cabinet position within a few years to focus on building a campaign, Hagle said.

“It’s that domestic side of things that are probably going to be more important, but it’s going to be the foreign policy side of things that will give him the visibility over the next couple of years,” he said.

Trump has said he wants Pompeo to stay on as secretary but would support his decision to run for elected office.

Trump often gives Pompeo wide latitude to operate in the administration, an allowance rarely afforded to others. The latest example is Pompeo’s recommendation that Trump fire the State Department inspector general (IG), a suggestion the president followed through on.

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Yet Linick’s dismissal, the fourth firing of an IG in two months, caused cracks in the otherwise solid foundation of Republican support for both the president and the secretary.

Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate GOP divided over whether they'd fill Supreme Court vacancy  Republicans dismiss Trump proposal to delay election Timeline for GOP's Obama probe report slips as chairman eyes subpoenas MORE (R-Iowa), a staunch supporter of IG protections against political retaliation, pushed back on the president’s explanation for firing Linick, saying he needed to provide more explicit reasoning.

“Removal of IGs without explanation could create a chilling effect in the oversight community, and risks decreasing the quantity, quality, fidelity, and veracity of their reports,” Grassley wrote in a letter to Trump.

Still, with attention focused on Trump’s dismissal of several inspectors general, scrutiny of Pompeo may be secondary.

Miller, the former Trump campaign spokesman, dismissed the idea that Pompeo’s political ambitions will suffer amid this controversy.

“I don’t think any of this ends up mattering in the grand scheme of things when it comes to Pompeo,” he said.