WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is slated to address the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, a move that upends decades of precedent and ethics guidelines aimed at separating America’s national security and foreign policy decision-makers from the whims of partisan politics.
The speech, which was recorded in Israel and is slated to air Tuesday night, is now under investigation by the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s subpanel on oversight. The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, called the speech “highly unusual and likely unprecedented” and suggested, “it may also be illegal.”
It has also made waves among former diplomats and foreign policy experts, who say his address, recorded while on official travel, smashes through the last remaining guardrails intended to protect the nation’s top diplomat from the dirty business of political campaigns.
“The optics are awful,” said Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “Foreign policy is supposed to stop at the water’s edge, and in theory, the Secretary of State representing the national interest is not supposed to take a partisan position on anything,” added Drezner, a critic of President Donald Trump.
“I want to be very clear, there is zero diplomatic value added to this speech,” he said. “Any speech by America’s chief diplomat that sows greater division in the United States is not going to add any value.”
“This is a deeply damaging decision for American diplomacy,” said Brett Bruen, who served as a diplomat for 12 years in the Bush and Obama administrations. “After months of questionable decisions by the secretary, diplomats are already pretty darn dispirited.”
“This just further exacerbates their sense that Pompeo doesn’t seem to think the rules apply to him,” added Bruen, the former director of global engagement at the White House and president of international consulting firm Global Situation Room.
Pompeo’s decision to address the convention from Jerusalem, the first stop on a four-day State Department trip to the Middle East, has sparked concerns that U.S. taxpayers may be footing a portion of the travel bill.
The State Department said that America’s top diplomat will address the convention in “his personal capacity.” It also said that no resources from the Department of State will be used, including staff, who will not have a role in preparing Pompeo’s remarks.
“The State Department will not bear any costs in conjunction with this appearance,” a State Department representative added.
That distinction struck ethics watchdogs as dubious.
“Secretary Pompeo can’t just flip a switch and go back and forth between serving as America’s chief diplomat and a Republican political operative while he’s in the Middle East on the government dime,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
“I think Secretary Pompeo’s conduct here is emblematic of the Trump administration’s approach to the Hatch Act and ethical norms relating to mixing official government conduct and political activity, the standards that apply to regular government employees just don’t apply to the president’s cronies,” Sherman added.
Signed into law in 1939, the Hatch Act bars employees of the executive branch from using their official positions to actively support or oppose any candidate for federal office. The Trump campaign has previously shrugged off complaints about the use of federal resources as partisan props, saying it is in compliance with the law.
“It’s shocking to have a secretary of State use the instruments of American foreign policy for such brazen domestic political purpose,” Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told CNBC.
“It’s completely inappropriate,” added Schake, a career civil servant with a bipartisan background and stints at the Departments of Defense, State and National Security Council at the White House. “It drags foreign countries into American domestic politics in a way that’s not good for those countries sustaining bipartisan support in the American Congress,” she said.
“It also suggests that American foreign policy is driven solely by electoral concerns as the precedent, rather than by enduring American interests that have bipartisan support,” Schake added.
Heather Hurlburt, who was a speechwriter for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, said Pompeo’s decision to address the convention will ultimately make “U.S. diplomacy less effective.”
“Every stop on Pompeo’s trip, not just the one to Israel, raises the question of, how are you using us as pawns in your domestic politics,” Hurlburt, director of the New Models of Policy Change project at New America’s Political Reform program, told CNBC. “And that, again, is a waste of taxpayers’ money; you could stay home and play domestic politics from home.”
A nod to 2024?
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech during a ceremony at the General Patton memorial in Pilsen, Czech Republic August 11, 2020.
David Josek | Reuters
Foreign policy experts speculated that Pompeo’s push to address the convention could be to not only shore up support for Trump but also to secure a voter base for a potential White House run in 2024.
“I think this is much more about 2024 than it is about right now,” Drezner began, “which is, if he wants to run for president in 2024, he obviously wants to lockup the evangelical bloc, and giving a speech in the old city of Jerusalem is one way in which he can appeal to them.”
Pompeo has shown willingness to use federal government resources to advance his own political ambitions.
Pompeo came under fire in May when Trump removed State Inspector General Steve Linick without immediately providing a clear explanation. At the time of his firing, Linick’s office had been looking into at least two matters involving Pompeo: a review of his approval of a multibillion-dollar arms sale to Saudi Arabia that bypassed congressional approval, and an investigation into whether Pompeo and his wife misused government resources.
The latter probe involved allegations Pompeo made a staffer run personal errands for him and Susan Pompeo, including walking their dog, picking up his dry cleaning and making dinner reservations, sources told NBC News in May.
While it’s not clear that he will seek the GOP nomination in 2024, Pompeo’s speech sets him up for comparison with another ambitious former secretary of State. In 2012, she didn’t speak at the Democratic National Convention, and she was already the subject of speculation that she would run in 2016.
“I mean, I think it’s really interesting to draw the contrast with Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State and everybody knew, everybody assumed she would run for president it wasn’t a secret, and how far she went to dissociate herself from this kind of thing,” Hurlburt said.
“There was plenty of media discussion of various aspects of Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State,” she added. “This is not an issue that just ever came up.”