On Tuesday, while on official travel to Jerusalem, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will remotely address the Republican National Convention. Yet according to a March 2016 State Department legal memorandum obtained by the Project On Government Oversight (POGO), “Senate-confirmed Presidential appointees may not even attend a political party convention or convention-related event.” The Senate confirmed Pompeo, a Trump appointee, in 2018.
POGO confirmed, and Politico reported today, that department guidance reissued in December 2019 contains the same language.
The “guidance reflects the provisions of the Hatch Act (the federal statute governing political activities by federal employees), government-wide regulations implementing that Act, and State Department policies,” according to the memo. The memo adds that “the Department has a long-standing policy of limiting participation in partisan campaigns by its political appointees in recognition of the need for the U.S. Government to speak with one voice on foreign policy matters.” It notes that prohibitions apply “in many circumstances, even when you are off duty.”
A source, who requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation, said the prohibition on attending a political party convention reflects the State Department’s tradition—dating back decades—of keeping partisan politics out of diplomacy. The department’s restrictions go beyond those of the government-wide Hatch Act, which restricts executive branch employees from supporting and opposing partisan candidates and political parties while on duty and, to some extent, while off duty as well. The sentence barring attendance on political conventions is in bold, a reflection of the fact that 2016 was a presidential election year, the source said.
Earlier this year, Pompeo’s deputy emailed department staff about these extra prohibitions. “We often talk of Hatch Act requirements, but in truth the Department has more far-reaching restrictions designed to ensure our representation overseas is not perceived as partisan,” Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun stated in a February 18, 2020 email.
“As a Senate confirmed Department official, I will be sitting on the sidelines of the political process this year and will not be attending any political events, to include the national conventions,” Biegun wrote. The message, first reported by the blog Diplopundit, was silent regarding Pompeo’s intentions. Biegun’s email said new guidance had been issued for political appointees, career senior executives, and all other career staff.
Pompeo’s decision to speak at the convention is controversial. It appears that no secretary of state in at least decades has participated in a political party’s convention while in the job. His remarks will occur during a taxpayer-funded foreign trip to a city that holds great significance to evangelical Christians, a core part of the president’s political base.
Pompeo’s allies have defended the decision. A McClatchy story published Sunday quoted an unnamed source reportedly close to Pompeo saying that Pompeo’s “lawyer, the State Department lawyers, RNC lawyers, White House lawyers have all worked on his appearance to make sure it is completely lawful and appropriate, including screening and approving all of his remarks.”
The State Department has said that the Republican National Committee will reimburse the U.S. Treasury for any expenses related to political activities during the trip and that Pompeo will speak only in his personal capacity. But this would only bring Pompeo into compliance with the Hatch Act—not the additional State Department restriction.
However, Pompeo has the authority to change, weaken, or strengthen the department’s political activity rules. The White House delegates power to the secretary of state to set restrictions for State Department political appointees, including those who are Senate-confirmed, that exceed the Hatch Act’s restrictions.
Another possibility is the White House, Pompeo himself, or someone else at the State Department waived him from State’s additional agency restrictions. Given that the presidential delegation gives Pompeo the authority to set the rules, two attorneys with extensive executive branch experience told POGO, Pompeo could conceivably have exempted himself from his agency’s rules.
The State Department did not respond to POGO’s request for comment.
While details of the department’s rules are scarce online, there are traces. A 2000 State Department inspector general report notes, “the Department has a long-standing policy of limiting participation in partisan campaigns by top officials and political appointees in recognition of the bipartisan character of foreign policy.”
In 2014, the Office of Special Counsel cleared an ambassador close to President Barack Obama for alleged Hatch Act violations, but referred the case to the State Department’s Office of Inspector General because of the department’s additional restrictions. (The author previously worked at the Office of Special Counsel.)