Colin Powell was the most popular figure in the Republican Party in 2004, when he served as secretary of state for U.S. President George W. Bush. But when the party held its national convention in August of that year, he refused to attend, citing his role as the country’s top diplomat. “As secretary of state, I am obliged not to participate in any way, shape, fashion, or form in parochial, political debates,” Powell said at the time. “I have to take no sides in the matter.”
This election season, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has chosen a different path, giving a televised address to the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem and making public appearances in several potential battleground states during official State Department travel. He made one such appearance at a Baptist church in Plano, Texas, on Sunday evening, following a trip to Latin America. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to travel to Wisconsin—a key battleground state that could decide the 2020 election results—to deliver another speech, this one focused on threats from China.
The trips have drawn criticism from lawmakers and even some veteran diplomats, who say Pompeo is using the taxpayers’ dime to try to rally the president’s base to influence the election even if he is not explicitly campaigning for Trump. “It’s disappointing that Secretary of State Pompeo doesn’t respect the intelligence of the American people. Everyone understands that campaigning using government resources is unlawful, but Secretary Pompeo is doing it anyways,” said Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee who is competing to take the helm of the committee in the next Congress.
Pompeo’s supporters say that such speeches are a sorely needed course-correction to connect American citizens outside the Washington beltway to what U.S. foreign policy is and why it matters to them. During his speeches, the secretary has not explicitly encouraged voters to back President Donald Trump—or vote against his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
A State Department spokesperson dismissed criticisms of Pompeo’s speeches as unfounded. “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. “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.”
Some current and former diplomats expressed concern that if the tradition of secretaries of state steering clear of domestic politics has been broken, there’s no going back—and, in the process, American diplomacy could become further mired in Washington’s dysfunctional partisan politics.
“How does this further the work of the department? How does the institution benefit from this?” said one State Department official of Pompeo’s planned speech in Wisconsin, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I struggle to find any rational answer other than … it doesn’t. It’s never been about the department—it’s about Pompeo and Trump and 2020 and 2024.”
In August, Pompeo carved out time during an official State Department visit to Israel to address the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem. Trump moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018, fulfilling a long-held campaign promise to his political base and pro-Israel Republican party leaders. The State Department has insisted that Pompeo adhered to strict rules barring federal employees from engaging in political activities while working in official capacities. Nonetheless, on the very day that Pompeo gave his televised address to the Republican convention, Castro announced he was launching a congressional investigation into the matter to determine whether it violated federal regulations. A Congressional aide said the investigation is ongoing.
On at least two State Department trips, Pompeo quietly held meetings with Republican political donors between his official engagements, and he has courted deep-pocketed conservative campaign funders alongside other officials in exclusive taxpayer-funded dinners hosted at the State Department.
Some State Department officials have raised internal alarm bells about this mixing of official diplomatic work with domestic politics—including events aimed at furthering Pompeo’s own long-term political ambitions. Pompeo himself signed off on a State Department memo earlier this year that urged political appointees to avoid participating in partisan events ahead of the election. Trump in May fired the State Department watchdog, who was looking into allegations of impropriety by Pompeo, at the secretary’s request. Pompeo and his aides have denied any wrongdoing and said the watchdog was fired for poor performance and management issues.
In October 2019, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Menendez, called for a special counsel to investigate whether Pompeo violated the Hatch Act—a law that limits partisan political activity for federal employees—by using State Department resources for an “unusual amount of visits” to Kansas, his adopted home state where he was reportedly flirting with a Senate run. An independent federal investigative agency cleared him of the charge, after he affirmed in January that he would not be running for the Senate seat.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Pompeo made a secretive trip to a Florida community with major Republican donors in January, on the tail end of a State Department trip. In the past year, Pompeo has also met with Republican donors during official visits to London and Kansas. And an NBC investigation found that since 2018, Pompeo has held about two dozen “Madison dinners,” lavish affairs that were left off Pompeo’s public schedule. The dinners raised internal concerns about his use of taxpayer funds to build a base for his own political ambitions.
Still, other former diplomats said it’s hard for secretaries of state to maintain the tradition of staying out of domestic politics in an era when nearly everything has become politicized. In that sense, Pompeo may simply be adapting to a new reality, however unpalatable it is to seasoned foreign-policy experts.
“The older tradition of keeping foreign policy out of domestic debates, I believe, was a sound one. But it’s also true to say that tradition has been slipping, that more and more foreign -olicy issues are issues of partisan divide now,” said Ronald Neumann, the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former senior career diplomat. “And so in a way there’s a phoniness to saying the secretary should stay out when so many people on both sides of the aisle are mixing domestic politics and foreign policy.”
Pompeo’s address in Madison, Wisconsin will be delivered to state senators and focus on “why state legislators across our country must be vigilant against the Chinese Communist Party’s malign influence at the subnational level,” the State Department spokesperson said.
In his speech on Sunday at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas—a potential swing state, according to some polls—Pompeo was careful not to explicitly endorse Trump, but he invoked talking points that play to the president’s evangelical conservative base. “I meet with people of many, many faiths. How America leads in the world is being watched. And there is an absolute responsibility to make sure that they understand our founding as a Judeo-Christian nation,” Pompeo said. “Faith is not only powerful but required by the American tradition. And especially—especially in these challenging times, keeping faith in the public square is not simply acceptable, but it’s an imperative. Our president believes that, and the senior leaders of America believe that.”
During his remarks, Pompeo was asked about the upcoming elections. “We should pray that the elections that we’ll have in 40-some days now will be safe and secure and that everyone’s vote will be counted precisely once,” he said. He added: “As the secretary of state, I’m not allowed to do politics.”