Pompeo's Unlawful RNC Speech for Trump Should Alarm All Americans | Opinion

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a previously taped speech from Jerusalem for the Trump campaign, defending the president's foreign policy and touting his friendship with Israel. The tape was played on night two of the Republican National Convention, where it was watched by millions of Americans.

No other sitting secretary of state has ever delivered such a speech at a political party's convention from inside the United States, let alone while on a diplomatic mission outside the country. And for good reason. Democratic principles and U.S. law prohibit using federal agencies as partisan political tools designed to help the reigning administration remain in power.

Pompeo's speech was one of several events at the convention that blurred the line between official administration acts and the Trump campaign, including the president delivering his acceptance speech from the South Lawn of the White House and the first lady presiding from the White House Rose Garden. The secretary's choice of location, as well as his remarks, made clear his partisan purpose: eliciting the support of Jewish, evangelical Christian and Zionist voters for President Donald Trump's re-election campaign.

"I'm speaking to you from beautiful Jerusalem, looking out over the Old City," Pompeo announced. Later, he continued, "The president moved the U.S. Embassy to this very city of God, Jerusalem, the rightful capital of the Jewish homeland, and just two weeks ago, the president brokered a historic peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. This is a deal that our grandchildren will read about in their history books."

The secretary of state's strategic use of Jerusalem as his backdrop dovetailed with statements made by Trump on the campaign trail. At an event in August, the president told a crowd of supporters that he had moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem "for the evangelicals," who are key to his re-election prospects. "It's amazing," Trump said of the transfer. "The evangelicals are more excited about that than Jewish people." Vice President Mike Pence made sure to repeat this pitch to Trump's base during his own RNC speech the following night.

While history is rife with examples of political campaigns seeking the support of particular segments of the voting public based on race, ethnicity or religion, such conduct is unprecedented for a sitting secretary of state, a threat to U.S. national security and an egregious violation of the Hatch Act, as we argued in the complaint we filed last week with the Office of Special Counsel. All Americans, Republicans and Democrats, should be alarmed.

Passed by Congress over 80 years ago, the Hatch Act prohibits federal government employees from using their official positions to support partisan political campaigns. Specifically, it provides that a federal employee may not "use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election."

Congress' objective was not only to curb the occasional rogue employee but also to prevent the president from using his expansive authority as head of the executive branch to turn agencies under his control into arms of his political campaign. We have seen this with a vengeance with the current administration: Trump is turning the two most powerful federal agencies—the State and Justice Departments—into arms of his campaign for re-election.

Although the president and vice president are not personally constrained by the Hatch Act, all other executive branch employees are. And Trump does not hesitate to compromise his closest advisers and the heads of federal agencies if it will enable him to gain an advantage over political rivals. Whether encouraged by the president or on his own initiative, Attorney General William Barr has politicized the Department of Justice by, among other things, seeking to dismiss prosecutions against Trump's friends and launching counter-investigations against his enemies. By contrast, Barr's predecessor, Jeff Sessions, was forced to resign as head of the Justice Department because of Trump's ire over his recusal from the Russia investigation. We have also seen the politicization of the U.S. Postal Service in a full-frontal attack on mail-in ballots, a move likely designed to suppress voter turnout to benefit Republicans in the election. The president has even pressured the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fall into line with his political agenda, leading to a dangerous politicizing of a federal agency that should be guided exclusively by science.

The State Department said Pompeo delivered the Jerusalem speech in his personal capacity and that no department resources or staff were involved in the event, even though diplomatic security agents and other staff usually accompany him all of the time when he is overseas. The department also said the speech was cleared by four separate groups of lawyers, from the White House, the State Department, the RNC and Pompeo's personal legal team. But as reports from inside the Office of Legal Counsel document, the advice of lawyers in this administration is highly politicized as well.

From a simple financial perspective, having Cabinet officials campaigning for the president's re-election in the course of their official duties is a misuse of public funds and resources. Pompeo's trip was paid for by U.S. taxpayers, as was his security detail and any other State Department officials or employees traveling with him or assisting him with his appearance. Transporting a government official to any location to take advantage of a unique setting for a campaign photo or video without pro rata allocation of expenses between the government and a political campaign is itself a misappropriation of government funds and a violation of the Hatch Act.

Perhaps most important, the secretary of state plays a critical role in securing the interests of the United States abroad, and in this instance, Pompeo's visit would have been extremely delicate even without his speech for the Trump campaign from the Western Wall. The administration has announced its intent to sell weapons to the UAE. Israel has said it is opposed to such a sale, though Israel and the UAE have recently reopened diplomatic relations—in fact, seemingly just in time for the arms deal. The UAE acts in all matters as though it were an extension of Saudi Arabia, which heavily opposed the now-defunct U.S. nuclear deal with Iran.

Nothing in Gulf politics is simple, and one errant visit by a misguided U.S. secretary of state can tip the balance in the region against U.S. interests in a heartbeat. For Pompeo to use a diplomatic mission to Israel as a mere backdrop for a partisan political speech, just months before a presidential election, is a profound threat to U.S. national security interests. It also complicates diplomatic relations with the host country and compromises other alliances the United States may have elsewhere in the world. But this is merely one example of what can go awry when federal agencies are politicized by the president who leads them.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's RNC Speech
In this screenshot from the 2020 Republican National Convention, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a pre-recorded speech from Jerusalem on August 25. Handout/Getty

In this case, there is yet another worry, given Pompeo's track record. We know Trump, with Pompeo's apparent knowledge, conditioned military aid for Ukraine in 2019 on the willingness of that country to provide assistance to his political campaign. Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified before Congress that State Department officials knew about the quid pro quo. Could it be that a subsidiary purpose of Pompeo's visit to Israel was to solicit the involvement of Israel or any other country in the 2020 U.S. election? What role, if any, does the proposed arms sale play in this story? The American people deserve assurances that whatever the secretary's purpose in traveling to Israel, he was representing the interests of the United States and was not an emissary from the campaign to re-elect the president.

There has been longstanding recognition within the State Department of the need to keep its work separate from all political campaign activity. Previous secretaries of state avoided partisan politics altogether, refusing to answer unsolicited questions about American politics. In May 2016, a student asked Secretary of State John Kerry about then-candidate Trump during a visit to Oxford University. Kerry's response: "I'm not allowed, under our law, to get into, actually full-throatedly, into the middle of the campaign."

In a December 2019 memo, the legal adviser for the Department of State told political appointees that they were prohibited from "engag[ing] in political activity in concert with a partisan candidate, political party, or partisan political group," and that "Senate-confirmed presidential appointees...may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event."

Indeed, Pompeo himself appears to recognize the importance of this policy, at least for his subordinates. In July 2020, he sent a cable to all U.S. missions overseas pointing specifically to the 2019 memo, which states, "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."

We would question whether it is possible for a secretary of state to act in his personal capacity while campaigning for the president who appointed him. But Pompeo's RNC speech certainly was not an example of an effective division between the two. Arguably, it is simply not possible for the secretary to separate his official, public and governmental function from his personal actions in a situation such as this. Delivering a speech, particularly overseas, is by its very nature a diplomatic and political activity, and the secretary cannot remove the governmental imprimatur from his appearance with a formalistic declaration that he is speaking in his private capacity.

The secretary, and all federal officials, have a civic duty to conduct themselves in a manner that reflects respect for the offices they serve, as well as to put country above party. If the American people still determine the course of their own elections, we may hope for a time when our federal agencies can be restored and when the men and women who run them can be once more trusted to lead those agencies with integrity and in the best interests of the country.

Claire O. Finkelstein is the Algernon Biddle professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the faculty director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law. Richard W. Painter is a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School and was the chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush. He is the author (with Peter Golenbock) of American Nero: The History of the Destruction of the Rule of Law, and Why Trump Is the Worst Offender. Their views may not reflect those of their organizations or affiliations.

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own. Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the complaint as being filed with the Department of Justice; it was filed with the Office of Special Counsel, an independent agency.