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Pompeo accused of mixing politics and diplomacy as election nears

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the Republican National Convention in August from a rooftop of the King David Hotel overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses the Republican National Convention in August from a rooftop of the King David Hotel overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City. (AP)
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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s pre-election speeches in battleground states are drawing increased scrutiny from Democratic lawmakers, who say his remarks cross a line that has traditionally separated foreign policy from domestic politics.

Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, on Monday asked the State Department for documents relating to Pompeo’s “domestic political speeches” to groups in Texas, Wisconsin and Florida.

“It is concerning that the Secretary is suddenly crisscrossing the country at taxpayers’ expense to speak with state legislators and private groups and that these events appear to be increasing in frequency as the November 3rd election approaches,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter.

“There is no place for partisan politics in the halls and offices of the State Department, and we consider it deeply inappropriate and potentially illegal for the Secretary of State even to seriously consider actively campaigning for a presidential candidate,” they added.

Castro said the requests for documents are part of an effort to draw up stricter guidelines in the future.

“For generations, U.S. Secretaries of State avoided domestic politics in order to speak more credibly as a representative of our entire nation, not one political party,” he said. “The corruption of the Trump era has unfortunately demonstrated how many important practices were norms not written into black letter law, and we need to do a damage assessment after this administration to inform necessary reforms.”

Pompeo’s office insisted his appearances have been an appropriate exercise of his job as America’s top diplomat and blasted the Democratic lawmakers’ characterization of his speeches.

“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,” according to a statement from the State Department. “Communicating our mission directly to the American people is one of the most important ways of strengthening it.”

The statement said that the State Department takes congressional oversight “seriously” but that “the unilateral characterization of official travel as ‘political trips’ seems to reveal a less than serious tone to this oversight request.”

Pompeo’s public remarks have drawn more attention since he addressed the Republican National Convention in August, talking to delegates by videotape from a rooftop of the King David Hotel overlooking Jerusalem’s Old City on a hastily scheduled trip to the Middle East.

Since then, he has flown to Texas to speak before a Baptist megachurch on “Keeping Faith in the Public Square” and to Wisconsin to address the state legislature. Last weekend, he canceled an in-person visit to Florida and appeared by video, telling a conservative Christian group that abortion is not an international human right and urging it to fight against the “pro-abortion” groups that are “lobbying” for the practice to be legal “internationally, just as they do here at home.”

Perceptions of a double standard have arisen in light of a December memo, which Pompeo approved, warning State Department employees not to “improperly engage the Department of State in the political process.”

“Whatever the legal technicalities, there is the appearance of considerable conflict between what the secretary of state is doing and what the secretary of state tells employees they must not do,” said Ron Neumann, a former ambassador who heads the American Academy of Diplomacy.

Pompeo has cast his remarks as an explanation of U.S. foreign policy. He extolled the Trump administration’s antiabortion policies when delivering a keynote address to the Florida Family Policy Council, titled “Respecting Life in America’s Foreign Policy.”

But Democrats say that does not mean his behavior was appropriate.

“Pompeo is careful in the way he chooses words and frames these events,” said a Democratic aide in Congress, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be frank about views of Pompeo. “But you’d have be willfully blind to look at events in Wisconsin and Florida and say he’s not trying to involve himself in an election.”

The U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, directly criticized Democratic nominee Joe Biden in an interview published Sunday on the website of a United Arab Emirates news outlet.

“If Biden wins, we will see a policy shift that in my personal opinion will be wrong and will be bad for the region, including for Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait,” he said.

Many see a difference between staying within the Hatch Act prohibitions on federal employees engaging in political activities and the appearance of endorsing political views.

“Generally, secretaries of state have stayed out of election campaigns as part of the larger preference to keep foreign policy separate from domestic policy,” Neumann said. “From that perspective, many people would find this tacky.”