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Mike Pompeo’s RNC speech will place him as the most partisan secretary of state in decades

“We should not be using American diplomacy for partisan political purposes,” a State Department official critical of Pompeo’s upcoming address told Vox.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a joint press conference with Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg at Belvedere Palace on August 14, 2020, in Vienna, Austria.
Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

When Mike Pompeo addresses the Republican National Convention on Tuesday, he’ll be solidifying his place as the most partisan secretary of state in decades — and tarnishing the proudly independent reputation of the agency he leads.

The nation’s chief diplomat is on official travel to the Middle East to handle important foreign policy issues, namely how to strengthen a US-brokered deal to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Instead of spending all his time focused on those matters, though, Pompeo will also address voters back home, using the backdrop of the holy city of Jerusalem (very literally, as he’s expected to deliver a recorded message from a rooftop somewhere in the city) to boost the president’s reelection campaign.

“Looking forward to sharing with you how my family is more SAFE and more SECURE because of President Trump,” Pompeo tweeted on Sunday. “See you all on Tuesday night!”

That will shatter years of precedent in which sitting Cabinet members, and especially high-profile ones like secretaries of state, don’t engage in openly political and partisan activities. It was a norm Pompeo’s predecessors — in both Republican and Democratic administrations — believed was important to uphold.

As Stephanie Epner, a former adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry, told me, her former boss purposely “did not wade into domestic politics” while he was at the State Department. “He was America’s chief diplomat, not Democrats’ chief diplomat, and he took that very seriously.”

This norm is why longtime State Department employees I spoke to are furious with Pompeo’s decision to feature in the Republican Party’s showpiece. “It’s inappropriate on so many levels,” a State official told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid views. “We should not be using American diplomacy for partisan political purposes.”

Pompeo seemingly agreed with that sentiment at one point: In February, he approved a State Department memo that says, in bold type: “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event.” And in a July 24 memo obtained by Vox and signed by Pompeo, it clearly states the department’s “longstanding policy” is that employees “may not engage in partisan political activity while posted or on TDY abroad, even on personal time.”

But ask State’s press officers if they see anything wrong with Pompeo’s participation, and you get a strong pushback. The secretary “will address the convention in his personal capacity,” a State Department spokesperson told me without explaining how it violates the agency’s policy, adding that none of Pompeo’s staff is involved in drafting his remarks or arranging the appearance. And though his address will take place while Pompeo is on official travel, the spokesperson said taxpayers won’t incur any costs related to his speech.

That last part may be true in a technical sense, but it certainly comes close to, if not outright crosses, an ethical line. Pompeo will be using the Israeli capital — the city President Donald Trump moved the US embassy to two years ago, fulfilling a key campaign promise — as the backdrop for his address. But taxpayers are footing the bill for his trip so he can conduct American foreign policy, not to provide him with a politically useful scene for a Republican Party convention speech.

Were he not traveling there as secretary of state on a taxpayer-funded trip, he wouldn’t be in the Israeli capital. The spokesperson didn’t answer further questions on this point.

Still, four teams of lawyers, including State’s legal counsel, reportedly looked at Pompeo’s planned comments to ensure they don’t cross any ethical lines, and apparently they signed off on them. One reason may be because Pompeo isn’t officially attending the event, but rather sending in a short pre-recorded speech from a rooftop in Jerusalem.

That Pompeo would even consider coming near such a clear red line, though, is typical behavior. “This is consistent with Pompeo’s entire tenure: unprecedented and completely predictable,” said Daniel Drezner, a US foreign policy expert at Tufts University’s Fletcher School who has written extensively on the secretary’s time in charge.

After all, Pompeo has used his station to hold secret meetings with Republican donors, fire inspectors general for looking into his possible misconduct, travel repeatedly to Kansas while contemplating a Senate run, stonewall Democrat-led congressional inquiries while aiding Republican-helmed probes, and even troll the Democrats on Twitter during their national convention last week.

Simply put, these are not the actions of a secretary of state with the interests of the entire nation in mind. They are the actions of a hyperpartisan Cabinet member who puts his, the president’s, and the Republican Party’s desires first.

Which leads into another troubling aspect of Pompeo’s RNC appearance: The speech is almost sure to be seen as a blatant appeal to conservative evangelical voters, an important constituency when it comes to Trump’s reelection. Pompeo’s decision, then, may actually hurt the US-Israel relationship he aims to bolster.

Pompeo’s speech underlines Trump’s courting of the evangelical voter

Poll after poll shows that white evangelical Christians, who form a strong contingent of the Republican Party, support Trump’s handling of the US-Israel relationship more than any other group.

There’s a good reason for that. Along with the embassy move and the Israel-UAE pact, Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal to place heavy sanctions on the country, recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, and unveiled an Israel-Palestine “peace” plan that essentially gave far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nearly everything he wanted. At that proposal’s unveiling in January, Netanyahu showered Trump with praise: “You have been the greatest friend that Israel has ever had in the White House.”

Many evangelicals share that feeling. “Evangelicals in the United States trust President Trump on the issue of Israel because he’s been so supportive,” Joel Rosenberg, a dual US-Israel citizen and an evangelical, told the National Catholic Reporter that month. “They’re not dealing with a hostile president, like President Obama. They’re dealing with a friend who has been enormously helpful to Israel.”

Trump is aware of his popularity in that community and is quite open about making policy decisions on the US-Israel relationship with evangelicals in mind. “We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem. That’s for the evangelicals,” he said during a campaign stop in Wisconsin last week.

It helps explain why Pompeo would take the opportunity to address that constituency during his Middle East trip. But there also seems to be a deeper reason: Pompeo, an evangelical himself, seems to believe Trump’s leadership has the divine seal of approval.

Asked by CBN News last year if God raised up Trump like the biblical figure Queen Esther, who helped save Jews from death by order of a Persian official, Pompeo said, “As a Christian, I certainly believe that’s possible ... I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”

But using Israel as a political prop in this way could actually harm America’s relationship with that country. “It’s really bad for the long-term bilateral relationship for Israel to become a partisan issue,” said the State official critical of Pompeo’s planned RNC appearance. Partisan divisions over Israel have only grown wider in the Trump era because of how unabashedly the president pursues pro-Israel policies and because of Netanyahu’s violation of Palestinian rights, which has weakened support for Israel among liberal Democrats.

Pompeo’s address could also backfire on Trump politically. “It may score some points with evangelical voters, but it will hurt Trump with Jewish voters, who value maintaining Israel as a bipartisan issue in US politics and object to it being [used] for partisan political purposes,” said Daniel Shapiro, the former US ambassador to Israel.

But Trump and Pompeo both seem to think the speech will help fire up the base. And so, as Shapiro put it, describing their view: “Screw the norms.”

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