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Pompeo defends decision to speak at RNC while on diplomatic trip

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, DC, September 2, 2020.

Nicholas Kamm | Pool via Reuters

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday defended his decision to address the Republican National Convention, a move that upended decades of precedent and ethics guidelines aimed at separating America’s national security and foreign policy decision-makers from partisan politics.

“I did this in my personal capacity,” Pompeo said during a press briefing. “All I can say in my role as secretary of State is, the State Department reviewed this, it was lawful. And I personally felt it was important that the world hear the message of what this administration has accomplished.”

Pompeo’s virtual remarks were recorded in Jerusalem while he was on official State Department travel and aired on the second night of the RNC on Aug. 25. They are under investigation by the House Foreign Affairs Committees’ subpanel on oversight.

The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, called the speech “highly unusual and likely unprecedented” and suggested, “it may also be illegal.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the legality issue.

Pompeo’s address to the convention from Jerusalem, the first stop on a four-day State Department trip to the Middle East, also sparked concerns that U.S. taxpayers may be footing the portion of the travel bill dedicated to his commentary.

The State Department had previously said that America’s top diplomat would address the convention in “his personal capacity.” It also said that no resources from the State Department would be used.

That distinction struck ethics watchdogs and foreign policy experts as dubious.

“The State Department represents the United States abroad to our allies and into our adversaries, not simply the interests of one political party or another,” said Donald Sherman, deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“And that’s why, sitting secretaries of State don’t usually speak at political conventions, especially participating while holding government business.”

Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, described Pompeo’s decision to speak at the convention as “shocking” and “completely inappropriate.”

“It drags foreign countries into American domestic politics in a way that’s not good for those countries sustaining bipartisan support in the American Congress,” said Schake, a career civil servant with a bipartisan background and stints at the Departments of Defense, State and National Security Council at the White House. 

“It also suggests that American foreign policy is driven solely by electoral concerns as the precedent, rather than by enduring American interests that have bipartisan support.”

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