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Pompeo Stirs Controversy With Convention Speech From Israel
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s decision to speak to the Republican National Convention while on a taxpayer-funded trip abroad is raising new questions about how he’s mixed partisan politics with his role as America’s top diplomat.
Pompeo’s plan to speak in praise of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy appears to violate State Department guidance which prohibits participation in political conventions and on politicking while on official travel as well as guidance he and his team recently reaffirmed to employees in the past year, as the November election approached.
It is also a departure from the behavior of past secretaries who steered clear of nominating conventions for fear of wading too deeply into partisan politics. Unlike Pompeo, they generally sought to stay above the election fray and avoided publicly criticizing the opposing party’s nominee.
“It is unprecedented in modern times for a Secretary of State to address a political convention,” Nicholas Burns, a former senior U.S. diplomat under multiple administrations, wrote on Twitter. “This is not wise at a time when our chief diplomat should be focused on restoring America’s lost global credibility.”
Pompeo announced his plan to address the convention on his personal Twitter page over the weekend. While former secretaries of state, including Madeleine Albright and John Kerry, have addressed Democratic presidential conventions in the past, they didn’t do so while still in the State Department job.
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The manual guiding behavior for State Department officials says “employees, spouses, and family members are prohibited from engaging in any partisan political activities abroad.” That includes when staff are off duty.
That guidance doesn’t leave much room for Pompeo to justify his speech, although the Project on Government Oversight, an outside watchdog, said in areport Monday that “Pompeo has the authority to change, weaken or strengthen the department’s political activity rules.”
A person familiar with Pompeo’s thinking, who asked not to be identified discussing private discussions, said Trump asked Pompeo to speak at the convention, and the stop in Jerusalem was the only chance he had to do it. The person said Pompeo’s speech was cleared by four sets of lawyers: his personal lawyer, the White House counsel’s office, Republican National Committee lawyers and the State Department legal office.
It wasn’t immediately clear what served as the backdrop of Pompeo’s speech, taped on Monday after a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Using the historic core of Jerusalem or historically significant religious buildings as the background would be likely to fuel further criticism.
“For a sitting secretary of state to make a partisan speech to a nominating convention is already unprecedented; to do so from one of the most diplomatically sensitive cities in the world, while on an official visit, is breathtakingly wrong,” J Street, a liberal Jewish-advocacy group, said in a statement. “The Trump administration continues to break new ground in their shameless efforts to use the state of Israel as a political prop and a partisan football.”
State Department officials traveling with Pompeo declined to comment, citing the requirements of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from taking part in political activities while on duty or in a government building. Officials said no taxpayer funds were used to tape Pompeo’s speech.
Pompeo has a long history of weaving political statements and activities into his State Department responsibilities. He used a speech in Cairo early in his tenure to criticize former President Barack Obama’s Mideast policies; visited with political donors in Florida, New York and his Washington office building that weren’t on his public schedule; and spoke at events in Kansas and other Midwestern states that had only a peripheral connection to foreign policy.
The 56-year-old Pompeo is widely viewed as harboring presidential ambitions. But the person familiar with his thinking said the secretary will give the speech in his role as a private citizen.
That’s a distinction he’s increasingly tried to make, especially since late last year when he opened a personal Twitter account. It features quotes from the Bible and pictures of his dogs, along with more overtly political content such as criticism of “radical leftists,” congratulatory notes to Fox News personalities and birthday wishes to members of the Trump family.