House Democrats Pledge to Continue Investigations Into Pompeo—Regardless of Election Outcome

The contenders to lead the House Foreign Affairs Committee all plan to redouble its investigations into the secretary of state’s tenure.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens to the NATO secretary general after arriving for a summit in Brussels on Nov. 20, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens to the NATO secretary general after arriving for a summit in Brussels on Nov. 20, 2019. FRANCISCO SECO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

All the leading contenders to take up chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee next year vowed that investigations into Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s alleged misdeeds at the State Department would continue regardless of the results of next month’s presidential election, setting the stage for protracted investigations into the Trump administration’s handling of U.S. foreign policy.

The three contenders to head the powerful panel—Reps. Gregory Meeks of New York, Brad Sherman of California, and Joaquin Castro of Texas—all pledged to extend oversight requests in a bid to fix what ails the State Department, which has been plagued by plummeting morale, attrition of career officials, alleged misuse of official resources, and charges of increasing politicization at the highest ranks. Their three-way race won’t be decided until January, assuming the Democrats maintain control of the House of Representatives, as polls suggest.

Pompeo, who catapulted to national prominence as a Kansas congressman by investigating the Obama-era State Department, has denied wrongdoing, and his aides have accused Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee of leading investigations for political purposes. 

“The country needs to know how this administration has politicized the State Department,” said Sherman, who emerged as one of the leading candidates for the gavel after the current chairman, New York Rep. Eliot Engel, was defeated in a June primary. “That will be a little less relevant to people if Trump is ex-president, it will be even more important if, God forbid, he gets reelected.”

“Chairman Engel didn’t start these investigations for political reasons. They were started because the truth is crucial to our democracy,” Meeks said. “That is why the investigations should continue regardless of who is president.”

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. Republicans on the committee—considered unlikely to retake the House majority in the next Congress—have mostly tried to stay out of the fray. The office of Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, declined to comment. 

Whether or not President Donald Trump is reelected, with Democrats expected to hold the House, the move could further entrench partisan rancor between Pompeo and the committee’s leadership that has spilled out into the open over the past two years. It also puts Pompeo—who first gained national recognition for his role in grilling the State Department and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the 2011 Benghazi terrorist attacks—in the crosshairs of potential legal battles beyond the 2020 election.

One of Trump’s most loyal cabinet secretaries, Pompeo has faced growing complaints by Democrats of misusing State Department resources for personal use and alleged politicking. Aides on Capitol Hill also said they have unresolved questions about why Pompeo pushed to fire the State Department’s inspector general, his alleged misuse of taxpayer dollars on travel for his wife, a series of extravagant so-called Madison dinners at the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters with deep-pocketed Republican donors, and directing a senior advisor to run personal errands. 

Pompeo, in a sharp break with State Department tradition, appeared at the Republican National Convention in a prerecorded video during an official visit to Jerusalem this summer, and he’s spent months giving policy speeches to audiences in battleground states such as Wisconsin and Florida.  

“He’s practically kept a campaign schedule for the last few months,” said one House aide.

The State Department said its legal office first reviewed and cleared Pompeo’s plan to address the Republican National Convention, and that no taxpayer resources were used. But Castro, who is leading the inquiry into the speech as head of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said the State Department has been “uncooperative so far” in the committee’s effort to request documents on the matter. 

“We intend to continue looking into this beyond November and beyond January, regardless of who’s in the White House and who the secretary of state is,” Castro said. “And so if we have to request those documents from a new administration in January, then we will.” 

Internal emails sent to political appointees at the State Department by his deputy Stephen Biegun and obtained by Politico earlier this year instructed political appointees not to attend party conventions or related events. 

Earlier this month, Pompeo also drew fire from Democratic lawmakers for vowing to release more of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her tenure as secretary of state at the urging of Trump—despite it being unclear if there are more emails to release. His pledge triggered an investigation from the federal government’s independent watchdog, the Office of Special Counsel, to determine whether such a move would violate the Hatch Act that prevents partisan political activities in federal office.

“Releasing emails for the sake of transparency can’t possibly be a violation of the Hatch Act. That’s a ridiculous question,” Pompeo said in an Oct. 14 press conference when asked about the matter. “We’ll continue to do the right thing. We’ll make sure that all these emails get to the right place and we will do everything we can to make sure that the American people get a chance to see as much as we can equitably produce.” 

The row between House Democrats and Pompeo reached a fever pitch in June, after Trump fired State Department watchdog Steve Linick, who had been investigating the alleged misuse of official resources by Pompeo and his wife at the time of Linick’s ouster.

In the wake of his firing, the State Department balked at providing documents and key witnesses to the committee over the administration’s decision to use an emergency declaration to sell precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last year over bipartisan objections on Capitol Hill. Last month, three senior department officials testified on the matters before the committee and defended Linick’s firing and the expedited arms sales.

“No president should be abusing the word of emergency, and we need to make it plain to any new secretary of state that you don’t cut Congress out of the process because three years from now you want to deliver certain munitions to Riyadh,” Sherman said. Pompeo and his senior aides argued that the emergency declaration was necessary to better help its Gulf allies deter Iran in the region and combat Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the war in Yemen. 

But Congress is still waiting for answers on urgent documents and testimonies that date back even further. Committee aides said the State Department is stonewalling most of their major oversight requests, including on matters from over a year ago. The unfulfilled oversight requests include: Trump’s communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin; the role of Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, in diplomacy; State Department spending of taxpayer funds at Trump properties; evidence that associates of Trump threatened Marie Yovanovitch, the career ambassador ousted from her post in Ukraine ahead of the impeachment investigation; and the administration’s decisions to cut funding to the World Health Organization.

The State Department can be forthcoming—when it serves Trump’s political interests, Democratic committee members charge. The State Department furnished documents to Senate Republicans on presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden’s role as a board member in a major Ukrainian natural gas company—an investigation that Democrats say is purely political—and witnesses for hearings on the controversial emergency declaration to expedite arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

But committee aides said that the State Department only appears to offer up documents or testimony when Democrats ratchet up pressure on the administration—including threatening to hold Pompeo in contempt or, on the Senate side, blocking confirmation votes on senior Trump appointees—and not as a matter of routine process.

And that pressure has triggered retaliation from the State Department. When the committee was pushing for answers in its investigation into Linick’s firing, for instance, Pompeo ordered staff-level briefings on totally unrelated matters to be halted. House aides said that the State Department has blown through deadlines to provide documents to Congress justifying the Republican National Convention address in Jerusalem, as well as recent speeches in Wisconsin and Florida, must-win swing states for Trump. Democrats jostling for the gavel are hoping a Biden administration would be more cooperative in doing a post-mortem of the State Department’s politicization under Trump. 

Though Democrats promise the investigations will continue apace even if Trump wins a second term, they would likely face even greater headwinds from an administration that has been determined to keep top officials away from congressional scrutiny—an issue that is moving through U.S. courts. In August, a federal appeals court dismissed a lawsuit aiming to force former White House counsel Donald McGahn to obey a subpoena from Congress—but one judge also dismissed a claim that McGahn was entitled to “absolute immunity.” 

On the other hand, Pompeo is not likely to face increased legal liability if he steps down or Trump is defeated, experts said. But a Biden victory in November could remove many potential hurdles to the Democrats’ probe into alleged wrongdoing, with a new secretary of state likely to be more willing to hand over documents and provide witnesses—and some are worried that Congress could go too far. 

“I think Republicans and Pompeo themselves set a pretty damning trend on the Benghazi investigation with a very myopic and politically focused [inquiry],” said Scott Anderson, a former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution. “I don’t know if it’s good for the Democrats to give in to those instincts.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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