Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s push to release a new tranche of Hillary Clinton’s emails ahead of the November presidential election has prompted backlash from Democrats on Capitol Hill and unease within the State Department, according to four officials and several congressional aides.
The move came after President Donald Trump criticized Pompeo, one of his most loyal underlings, for not releasing Clinton’s emails from her tenure as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. Pompeo quickly buckled, telling Fox News on Friday that the department had the emails and was pushing to release them “as fast as we can,” including a probable release before the election.
But his pronouncement has left more questions than answers—including what emails would be released, when, and why the sudden urgency for their release nearly eight years after Clinton stepped down as secretary of state. Inside the State Department, some career officials are even questioning whether following Pompeo’s order could be a violation of the Hatch Act, a federal law limiting political activities of government employees in the course of their official duties.
One Democratic lawmaker took the step of explicitly warning officials that such a move would be illegal. “Any State Dept. employee who helps him influence an election will be violating the law,” tweeted Rep. Tom Malinowski, a Democrat from New Jersey and former senior State Department diplomat in the Obama administration. “Apart from that, if Secretary Pompeo spends a little less time messing up our foreign policy so that he can devote his full attention to hurting Hillary Clinton’s campaign, be my guest.”
Multiple State Department officials describe a diplomatic corps already exhausted and demoralized from being dragged into political battles in the Trump era. Pompeo has abandoned the past practice of secretaries of state staying out of domestic politics by taking unprecedented steps to mix Trump’s campaign trail priorities with official State Department business. This year also saw the State Department forced onto center stage during Trump’s impeachment trial, while Pompeo has repeatedly clashed with Capitol Hill.
“It’s bad if [Pompeo’s] just saying the things he’s said to appease the boss. … If he’s really pushing internally for real action, that’s just way worse,” said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Such a move would constitute a “complete loss of any nonpartisan ideas in foreign policy [and a] complete subjugation of government machinery for Trump’s election purposes.”
Another official criticized Pompeo’s move as “total hypocrisy and completely political,” citing Pompeo’s refusal to hand over documents to the Democratic-led House Foreign Affairs Committee on other matters. “We all see it as just a joke,” the official fumed. “How does this advance foreign policy? What exactly do the American people need to know from emails four years ago that hasn’t already come out?”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Other legal experts said the move could set the stage for a future Joe Biden administration to open probes into Pompeo’s and other former Trump officials’ management of the State Department. “What about all of the communications between Trump administration officials that are on State Department servers?” said Margaret Taylor, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and senior editor at Lawfare, a national security blog. “That seems to be something Mike Pompeo would want to think about when he makes these statements.”
A three-year State Department investigation into Clinton’s email server released last year found that 38 people committed 91 security violations among the 33,000 individual emails sent to or from her private server during her time as secretary of state. However, it concluded that there was no widespread misuse of the server to mishandle classified information.
“While there were some instances of classified information being inappropriately introduced into an unclassified system in furtherance of expedience, by and large, the individuals interviewed were aware of security policies and did their best to implement them in their operations,” the State Department investigation concluded.
The State Department has released thousands of work-related emails during Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.
But for Trump, as for Pompeo, Clinton’s emails are a constant refrain. Trump fixated on Clinton’s use of a private email server during his presidential campaign against her in 2016. Pompeo, as a Republican congressman from Kansas, was one of the most vocal critics of Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state, using his perch on the House Select Committee on Benghazi to scrutinize her response into the 2012 terrorist attacks and railing against her use of a private email server while at the State Department.
Pompeo, in answering Trump’s summon last Friday, continued his years-old crusade against Clinton’s emails, arguing that having classified information on a private server was “unacceptable behavior.”
But for some State Department officials, the irony is rich. Even those who were critical of Clinton’s use of a private email server noted that senior Trump administration officials, including Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, use private email accounts and WhatsApp to conduct official government business and communicate with foreign government officials. Other White House officials, including former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and advisor Stephen Miller, also used personal email accounts for official business, as the New York Times reported in 2017. The practices raised concerns among cybersecurity experts who have questioned WhatsApp’s communications encryption and data security since Facebook bought the app in 2014.