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Secretary of State Pompeo’s RNC speech from Israel shatters norms, spurs investigation

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VIDEO | 04:00
Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo endorses President Trump during an official visit to Israel

Pausing during a multination trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo taped his convention speech with Jerusalem in the background.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Tuesday broke tradition, his own recent departmental guidelines and — according to Democrats — campaign law by addressing the Republican National Convention to endorse President Trump during an official visit to Israel.

With the glistening domes and spires of Jerusalem’s places of worship in the backdrop behind him, Pompeo delivered a recorded message praising what he described as Trump’s foreign policy victories, from eradication of Islamic militants to challenging China and what he called the “China virus,” the pandemic that his government is thought to have badly bungled.

“The way each of us can best ensure our freedom is by electing leaders who don’t just talk but who deliver,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo paused during a multi-nation trip to the Middle East to tape the convention speech in Jerusalem, what he called Israel’s “rightful capital,” and a potent symbol for his and Trump’s evangelical followers as well as a reminder that the president transferred the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested holy city over the objections of much of the world.

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The speech appeared to have been taped on the roof of the King David Hotel, a luxurious British-era building that overlooks Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Temple Mount, a site held sacred by Jews, Muslims and Christians.

“I’m speaking to you from beautiful Jerusalem, looking over the Old City,” he said, adding that his family is safer today “because President Trump has put his ‘America first’ vision into action ... delivering on this duty to keep our freedoms intact.”

A House panel said Tuesday it will investigate Pompeo’s actions to determine if he is breaking the law, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) announced. Castro, who chairs the oversight subcommittee in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, informed the State Department on Tuesday that he was launching an investigation.

At the same time, the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights organization, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, filed a formal complaint with the State Department’s acting inspector general asking that the speech be investigated as a violation of the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that generally prohibits political activism by federal employees.

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The position of secretary of State is generally regarded as a nonpartisan post, operating above the political fray to represent the most public face of American diplomacy. Pompeo, one of the few members of Trump’s Cabinet who has stayed with the president throughout his first term, is widely seen as the most partisan secretary of State in years.

His speech appears to flout his own recently issued guidelines. Last month Pompeo sent a memo to all State Department staff overseas, repeating a standard warning that they 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.”

The Republican National Convention, with its planned use of the White House as backdrop and speeches from administration officials, spurs outcry from ethics experts.

Earlier this week, Pompeo touted his upcoming convention appearance. “Looking forward to sharing with you how my family is more SAFE and more SECURE because of President Trump,” Pompeo tweeted. “See you all on Tuesday night!”

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After a day in Israel, Pompeo on Tuesday flew to Sudan and then Bahrain.

A State Department official said Pompeo was addressing the convention “in his personal capacity,” and would not cross ethical lines.

“No State Department resources will be used,” the official said, speaking to reporters anonymously in keeping with government protocol. “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.”

His decision to air a speech at the convention infuriated Democrats and others.

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“The fact that a sitting secretary of State would give a speech like this is flat out disgraceful,” said Bill Russo, a spokesman for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. “It is an abuse of taxpayer money.... And what this does is fundamentally undermine the incredibly important work that’s being done by the State Department, and it politicizes the historic bipartisan support that we’ve had in this country for Israel.”

Amanda Carpenter, a conservative commentator who worked for Republican lawmakers, also criticized the action. “Before he even says a word, his actions speak to the disregard for norms and ethics,” she said.

In addition to violating State Department policies, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told reporters, Pompeo “further shows that this administration is willing to politicize the state of Israel, and use it as a political wedge, as opposed to a rallying cry for us to come together and continue our traditions of bipartisan support for the state of Israel.”

Trump has claimed he is the “most pro-Israel president” in history, citing the embassy move and a new agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates designed to formally open diplomatic ties. He has also turned a blind eye to the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and on land claimed by Palestinians. Critics, however, including some U.S. Jewish groups, say Trump’s overt favoritism toward Israel jeopardizes the traditionally bipartisan support that Israel enjoys.

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State Department officials declined to discuss details of Pompeo’s video, citing the Hatch Act.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a champion of Israel, made public Pompeo’s cable of admonishment to State Department staff, dated July 24. In a statement, he said he believed Pompeo was violating the law.

“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. “Mr. Pompeo should show real respect for American law, diplomacy, and diplomats, and should follow his own guidance, cancel the speech, and watch the RNC from his hotel room after the workday is done.”

Pompeo’s trip was apparently arranged hastily, and several destinations appeared to be changed after they were announced. Normally, his trips are highly choreographed and generally come off like clockwork.

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A senior State Department official acknowledged that Pompeo’s travel was partially aimed at persuading other countries in the region to recognize Israel as the UAE has signaled it might do.

“We are in the region to test, to gauge the interest of other countries who may want to follow UAE’s lead,” the official said, briefing a reporter on Pompeo’s flight on condition of anonymity. “And this is a diplomatic process. No one should expect an overnight peace agreement.”

While in Jerusalem, Pompeo met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In brief comments afterwards, Netanyahu lambasted Iran and praised the UAE agreement, to which Pompeo said, “Amen, amen.”

They did not answer a reporter’s shouted questions.

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Times staff writer Janet Hook in Washington contributed to this report.


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