Pompeo’s domestic travel raises political questions
Earlier this week, USA Today published a wide ranging interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo where, in addition to discussing President Trump’s failed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, Pompeo announced a series of domestic trips he is taking to potential battleground states in the 2020 election cycle: Iowa, Kansas and Texas.
Despite the obvious political significance of these states and the State Department’s focus on foreign diplomacy, Secretary Pompeo “insisted” that his domestic travel plans were “not political or in any way intended to help bolster Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign.” Of course, as a federal official, Pompeo has to say that, because the Hatch Act bars him from using government resources and taking official travel to support political candidates like President Trump. Still, based on the Trump administration’s prior practice, observers are right to be skeptical of Secretary Pompeo’s domestic tour.
Last August, two senior White House aides revealed in a call with reporters that numerous “official” government events attended by senior administration officials were part of a coordinated effort “to help Republicans in the coming midterm elections.” According to the White House staffers, the officials deployed to “purple” congressional districts included White House Senior Advisor and First Daughter Ivanka Trump, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and then-Acting Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. The aides also revealed that senior Trump administration officials had done 35 events in August alone with or affecting “targeted” House members including John Katko and Mike Kelly who won narrow reelection bids in November. In New York, for example, Secretary Perry toured a nuclear power plant with Rep. Katko and in Pittsburgh, Ivanka Trump visited the city’s Robotics Row with Rep. Kelly. The visits were purportedly official government trips paid for using government funds, despite the fact that the true motive for them was admittedly political.
The Hatch Act prohibits executive branch employees, except the President and the Vice President, from “us[ing] his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.” In cases involving mixed travel – travel that includes both official and political events during the same trip – the law requires that costs be properly apportioned between the federal government and the relevant political organization to ensure the government is reimbursed for taxpayer funds expended for political events. Following reports about the White House coordinating official travel to support political candidates, CREW, requested a review of the administration’s compliance with the law. The agency tasked with enforcing the Hatch Act, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), promptly opened investigative files into the conduct of Secretary Carson, Secretary Perry, Acting Administrator Wheeler and Ms. Trump. In the weeks following our complaint, OSC also found cause to launch additional inquiries into the Department of Labor, the Department of the Interior, and the Small Business Administration. All seven of these investigations remain ongoing.
In February 2018, President Donald Trump officially became a candidate for reelection for purposes of the Hatch Act. Since then, several White House officials have been found in violation of the statute for using federal resources to support his reelection efforts. In addition, the Trump White House has explicitly sought to deploy cabinet secretaries and other senior administration officials to bolster the campaigns of vulnerable Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections. To date, Secretary Pompeo and the State Department have not been implicated in any of those efforts, but the Secretary has also not shied away from political events such as the 2018 Value Voters Summit where he gave extensive remarks.
In an interview this month, Secretary Pompeo said it was “ridiculous” to suggest that his recent announcement of official travel to battleground states was politically motivated. Given the Trump administration’s track record with the Hatch Act and using taxpayer dollars to fund political travel, closer examination seems warranted.