'It is just so wrong': Mike Pompeo under fire for speaking to RNC from Israel

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will dive into politically fraught waters Tuesday when he addresses the Republican National Convention – breaking diplomatic protocol and perhaps the State Department's own policy on engaging in partisan political activity. 

Pompeo's remarks will be recorded and piped in from Israel, where he's traveling on official State Department business. The State Department refused to say where Pompeo would tape his remarks, but a CNN photo appeared to show him on the roof of the historic King David Jerusalem Hotel, surrounded by TV equipment. And a reporter traveling with Pompeo said the secretary taped his political message in between meetings with Israeli officials on Monday.  

"It's unprecedented and it's, in my judgment, inappropriate," said Aaron David Miller,  a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Miller worked for a half-dozen former secretaries of state from both parties, from George Schultz to Colin Powell. Previous secretaries of state have eschewed such overtly political activities.

The State Department said Pompeo would address the RNC in his "personal capacity." A spokesperson, who was not authorized to comment on the record, said no official agency resources would be used for Pompeo's remarks, and his staff has not been involved in preparing his speech or in making the arrangements for Pompeo's appearance. 

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But critics said that's a distinction without a difference and note that Pompeo's remarks appear to directly flout a policy that he approved restricting State Department employees from taking part in political activities.  

A State Department memo, issued in December 2019, says agency employees cannot "engage in political activity in concert with a partisan candidate, political party, or partisan political group." The memo specifically bars high-level State Department officials from participating in a convention.

"Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event," reads the memo, which was released Monday evening by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

And just last month, Pompeo himself warned State Department employees against engaging in restricted political activity. “It is important that the Department’s employees do not improperly engage the Department of State in the political process, and that they adhere to the Hatch Act and Department policies in their own political activities," he wrote in a July 24 cable released by Engel.

On Tuesday, Rep. Joaquin Castro, a top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, opened a probe into Pompeo's decision, saying he has "a gross disregard" for ethics rules and "a blatant willingness to violate federal law for political gain." And the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties organization, filed a complaint with the State Department's watchdog asking the office to investigate whether Pompeo's speech is a violation of the Hatch Act, which bars federal employees from engaging in certain partisan political conduct. 

Democrat Joe Biden's deputy campaign manager, Kate Bedingfield, blasted Pompeo's appearance as "an abuse of taxpayer dollars" that undercut the work of American diplomats. 

The Times of Israel reported that Pompeo would deliver his remarks from an "undisclosed location" in Jerusalem, where he met Monday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu make joint statements to the press after their meeting, in Jerusalem, Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.

American support for Israel is a galvanizing issue for Evangelical voters, a pivotal constituency for the GOP.  

Critics accused Pompeo of using Israel as a "prop" to gin up support for Trump as he trails in the polls against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. 

"It is just so wrong," said former Wendy Sherman, who held high-level State Department positions in the Clinton and Obama administrations. 

She and others noted that Defense and State department chiefs normally do not engage in any partisan campaign activities on behalf of the presidents they serve, because they represent the United States abroad and are supposed to be above the domestic political fray.

Sherman said she was appalled that Pompeo is not only addressing the GOP convention but doing so from Jerusalem, a holy city that holds immense significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims. 

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It is "disrespectful" to the history and significance of Jerusalem "to be doing a political speech from such a holy city," Sherman said. “Jerusalem should not be a prop for a domestic partisan political convention.”

Pompeo left for the Middle East on Sunday, stopping in Israel first and then traveling to Sudan on Tuesday. He is scheduled to visit Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates later this week. 

After Trump's campaign released the convention line-up, Pompeo posted a message about his remarks from his personal Twitter account.  

"Looking forward to sharing with you how my family is more SAFE and more SECURE because of President Trump. See you all on Tuesday night!," the secretary posted on Sunday.  

Pompeo has not taken any questions from the one reporter traveling with him on the trip. He did not respond when she asked "is this a campaign stop?"

The trip seems to have been hastily arranged, with pool reports suggesting Pompeo's schedule was in flux even as his plane left the United States.