Pompeo’s Jerusalem speech violated Hatch Act, complaint says

Law professors tell State Department that secretary transgressed 1939 law limiting commingling of political activity and government business

A video of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking during the Republican National Convention plays from the Rose Garden of the White House, on August 25, 2020. (AP/Evan Vucci)
A video of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking during the Republican National Convention plays from the Rose Garden of the White House, on August 25, 2020. (AP/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo committed an “egregious violation” of the Hatch Act by delivering a video-taped speech from Israel to the Republican National Convention, according to a complaint filed by two law professors with the State Department’s inspector general.

Past secretaries of state have gone to lengths to avoid the appearance of partisan political activity, particularly during nominating conventions for the administrations they served. Pompeo’s speech violated the 1939 law, which limits the commingling of political activity and government business, says the complaint, filed late Wednesday.

During the speech, which was filmed during a diplomatic mission using Old Jerusalem as a backdrop, Pompeo praised President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. He also celebrated the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, an issue of particular importance to white evangelicals who are a crucial voting block for Trump.

“This video is an egregious violation of the Hatch Act,” wrote Claire O. Finkelstein and Richard W. Painter, the two law school professors. “Secretary Pompeo at the same time as he was on a diplomatic mission to Israel gave a partisan political speech for an RNC campaign video in which he referred to the US embassy in Israel, [and] said that a candidate in a partisan election — Donald Trump — should get credit for the relocation of that embassy.”

The Trump administration argues Pompeo’s remarks didn’t violate the law because he focused on US policy. But the speech shattered longstanding State Department precedent and even went against the guidance Pompeo issued to American diplomats last month, advising that federal law prevented them from taking overt sides in the presidential campaign.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks from Jerusalem in a video shown during the second night of the Republican National Convention, on August 25, 2020. (Courtesy of the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Committee via AP)

Still, the Trump White House has taken an ambivalent approach to the ethics rules and norms that guided past administrations. And Pompeo joins a substantive list of other Trump officials who have taken a cavalier approach specifically toward the Hatch Act.

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows dismissed concern about such violations on Wednesday, telling Politico, “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares.”

The complaint from Finkelstein, a University of Pennsylvania law professor; and Painter — George W. Bush’s former ethics lawyer, a onetime Democratic congressional candidate, and a University of Minnesota law professor — requests an inspector general investigation.

They also called for a review of whether State Department employees who helped with logistics could have violated the Hatch Act, as well.

“We believe that when you investigate Secretary Pompeo’s RNC speech from Jerusalem, you will conclude that he violated the Hatch Act in presenting it,” the law professors wrote.

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