Amid ethics inquiries, Pompeo faces crucial decision on Senate race
With multiple ethics investigations continuing to hang over him, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo is approaching a deadline that could shape his political career.
Pompeo has until Monday to decide whether to file for the Republican primary for Senate in his home state of Kansas.
Although people close to Pompeo doubt he’d step down from his post to run for Senate, America’s top diplomat — a fierce Trump loyalist — has kept speculation going, recently mentioning talks with his “friends back in Kansas.”
Republican leaders have urged Pompeo to run, fearing the party could lose the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Roberts. The seat would normally be safe for Republicans, but strategists in both parties see former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who is in the race, as a potential loser. Kobach, a controversial figure known for his hardline anti-immigration stand, lost a 2018 run for governor to a Democrat.
Republicans, once confident of keeping their Senate majority in the fall election, now fear Democrats have a fresh advantage as the coronavirus crisis has reshaped campaigns.
Speculation that Pompeo would run crescendoed last year before subsiding. The idea, however, has gained new life.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, is holding off on making an endorsement in the Republican primary until after the June 1 filing deadline to allow business leaders to see whether Pompeo gets into the race, said Scott Reed, the chamber’s senior political advisor.
David Kensinger, a Kansas political consultant who championed a Pompeo candidacy last year, said this week he did not believe Pompeo would shoot for the Senate now. Democratic-led probes into alleged ethical violations are designed to spoil Pompeo’s short-term electoral prospects, Kensinger said.
“Mike was always going to be a great candidate, but he also makes a great secretary of State,” Kensinger said from Topeka. “As soon as that [filing] deadline passes, magically you’ll see a drop in all those” investigations.
Congressional Democrats have launched several inquiries into actions or decisions by Pompeo.
He has dismissed criticism as politically motivated, offering only minimal details in responding to the accusations.
“I mean, it’s all just crazy. It’s all crazy stuff,” Pompeo said recently when asked about the allegations.
The most potentially damaging allegation involves President Trump’s late-night firing on May 15 of the State Department’s inspector general. Trump has said he fired Inspector General Steve Linick at Pompeo’s urging. He was the fourth inspector general Trump fired in six weeks, part of his efforts to eliminate potential independent oversight of his administration.
Linick was investigating possible misdeeds by Pompeo.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other prominent Democrats said the firing was possibly criminal if it was retaliatory.
“Such an action, transparently designed to protect Secretary Pompeo from personal accountability, would undermine the foundation of our democratic institutions and may be an illegal act of retaliation,” read a statement from Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
A trio of Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Mitt Romney of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa — also said they were disturbed by Linick’s abrupt dismissal and demanded an explanation.
Pompeo denied revenge was involved.
“There are claims that this was a retaliation for some investigation that the inspector general’s office here was engaged in. It’s patently false,” he told reporters last week.
“I have no sense of what investigations were taking place inside the inspector general’s office,” he said.
This week, on Fox News, Pompeo elaborated that Linick was “leaking information” and was “investigating policies he simply didn’t like.”
Linick was investigating reports that date to last year. One questioned Pompeo’s use of government resources for personal or campaign purposes, including allegations that he ordered State Department staff to pick up dry cleaning and retrieve the family golden retriever, Sherman, from the groomer.
Other allegations concerned Pompeo’s frequent flights on official aircraft, often with his wife, Susan, to meetings with donors and on trips home to Kansas.
The 1939 Hatch Act bars federal employees from using their office to campaign or engage in partisan activities — a law openly flouted by Trump and his administration.
Another probe has examined Trump’s decision a year ago to declare an emergency that would allow the administration to circumvent Congress and sell more than $7 billion in weapons to Saudi Arabia, said Engel, who requested the inquiry.
Members of Congress from both political parties last year opposed the arms sale because of Saudi Arabia’s killing of civilians in the conflict in Yemen and its role in assassinating a U.S.-based Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.
The emergency was “phony,” said Engel, who added that Linick was near completion of his report on that inquiry when fired.
Pompeo denied wrongdoing.
“I’ve seen the various stories that — like, someone was walking my dog to sell arms to my dry cleaner,” he said sarcastically.
Linick, a former assistant U.S. attorney in California, had served in the inspector general role since 2013. He wrote a critical report last year that documented a State Department political employee’s efforts to test diplomats’ loyalty to Trump. He also wrote a report highly critical of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while she was secretary of State.
More questions were raised over a series of elegant dinners that the Pompeos hosted in marbled salons at the State Department, with guest lists that included wealthy entrepreneurs, Republican politicians and mostly conservative media. The dinners, first reported by NBC, were not included on Pompeo’s schedule, which is supposed to be public.
“In an ordinary administration, some of these accusations would be career-ending, but this is not an ordinary administration,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor and ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis.
Pompeo may be safer from scrutiny remaining in the administration than hitting the campaign trail, she said.
“What would the citizens of Kansas think?” Clark asked. “Some ethics issues, like using a government employee as a personal servant … are things voters can understand.”
Trump, for his part, said he was not bothered if Pompeo asked government employees to perform household tasks like washing dishes “because maybe his wife isn’t there.”
“I would rather have him on the phone with some world leader,” Trump told reporters.
Times staff writer Janet Hook contributed to this article.