Pompeo warned diplomats to avoid politics; he'll talk at RNC

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make joint statements to the press after meeting, in Jerusalem, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020. (Debbie Hill/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sent a cable to all U.S. diplomatic missions last month warning American diplomats that under federal law they should not take overt sides in the presidential campaign. On Tuesday, he plans to ignore his own warning by speaking to the Republican National Convention endorsing President Donald Trump for a second term.

Pompeo's message to State Department employees reminding them of restrictions on political activity under the Hatch Act was not unusual. Similar, if not identical, cables have been sent by successive secretaries of state every presidential election year. None of his predecessors, however, has disregarded those instructions so obviously.

Despite State Department assurances that Pompeo will be speaking to the convention in his personal capacity and won’t violate the Hatch Act, Democrats and other critics have cried foul. They accuse the country’s top diplomat of inappropriate political behavior that has been anathema to his predecessors and of trashing his own admonition to State Department staffers.

A senior Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee announced Tuesday that he had opened an investigation into whether Pompeo is violating the Hatch Act and demanded that the State Department produce its legal justification for the speech. Rep. Joaquin Castro, who chairs the committee’s panel on government oversight, called Pompeo's actions “unacceptable.”

“The Trump administration and Secretary Pompeo have shown a gross disregard not only of basic ethics, but also a blatant willingness to violate federal law for political gain. Congress has a responsibility to stand up for the rule of law and hold them accountable for this corrupt behavior,” said Castro, D-Texas.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable that a sitting U.S. secretary of state, America’s top diplomat, would use official taxpayer-funded business to participate in a political party convention, particularly after the State Department published guidance that explicitly prohibits such activity," he said.

In a July 24 cable sent over his signature, Pompeo told employees "it is important to remember that in order to avoid any confusion or misperception in this regard, the department’s longstanding policy is that U.S. citizen employees and family members may not engage in partisan political activity while posted or on (temporary duty) abroad, even on personal time.”

“Similarly, presidential and political appointees and career (senior executives) are subject to significant restrictions on their political activity; they may not engage in any partisan political activity in concert with a partisan campaign, political party, or partisan political group, even on personal time and outside of the federal workplace,” it said.

The cable was released late Monday by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a fierce Pompeo critic who is engaged in multiple battles with the secretary over what he believes to be inappropriate and possibly illegal partisan behavior. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the cable independently and verified its authenticity.

“Once again, the rules go out the window for Secretary Pompeo when they get in the way of serving his political interests and Donald Trump," Engel said in a statement.

The State Department has defended Pompeo's decision to appear at the convention. “Secretary Pompeo will address the convention in his personal capacity,” it said. “No State Department resources will be used. Staff are not involved in preparing the remarks or in the arrangements for Secretary Pompeo’s appearance. The State Department will not bear any costs in conjunction with this appearance.”

Meanwhile, a person close to Pompeo said four teams of lawyers, including the State Department legal counsel, have reviewed the speech that will be recorded in Jerusalem and broadcast in prime-time at the Republican convention on Tuesday to ensure that it does not cross ethical lines. The person was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

That person and the State Department said no taxpayer money was used in the production of the video, which was filmed in Jerusalem on Monday on the first stop of a multi-nation trip to the Middle East that is dominated by official government business.

Critics, though, say Pompeo is violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the Hatch Act by using government resources to travel to the venue and jeopardizing long-standing tradition that domestic politics ends at the water’s edge when it comes to diplomacy.

At the same time, they complained using Jerusalem as the venue, Pompeo would further politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship with a pitch for Trump's reelection.

Trump has proudly claimed the mantle of being America's most pro-Israel president ever and as proof pointed to his decisions to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, move the U.S. Embassy to the holy city from Tel Aviv, recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and sideline the Palestinians.

Such actions have won him high praise from conservative Israelis and American Jews and also appealed strongly to evangelical Christians in the United State whose support Trump is counting on in November.

While previous secretaries of state have naturally supported the policies of the presidents they served, they have steered clear of public political endorsements, sometimes going to great lengths to avoid their parties' conventions.