Mike Pompeo’s Wisconsin Visit Was about China, Not Trump's Reelection

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a news conference at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., September 21, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/Pool via Reuters)

Over at Vox, Alex Ward writes that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech before the Wisconsin State Legislature this afternoon touched “on themes that could easily be construed as a broader campaign pitch,” possibly breaching limits on political activity by government officials.

This has been a common line of attack in recent months, as Pompeo’s critics have alleged that he is using the advantages of his office to tee up a 2024 presidential run with trips to Iowa, Kansas, and Texas, among other places beyond the Beltway.

Some of these complaints are more credible than others: The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, for instance, has defended Pompeo’s practice of convening top political, diplomatic, and business figures for “Madison Dinners” at Foggy Bottom. However, the ethical implications of his decision to film a video address for the Republican National Convention while on an official trip to Jerusalem are tougher to explain away.

By any reasonable standard, the latest so-called controversy is a nothingburger.

Ward’s contention that Pompeo probably breached the Hatch Act and federal ethics guidelines seems to be a few lines from this afternoon’s address — which raised the alarm about Chinese influence operations targeting state lawmakers — mentioning this administration’s work on China policy: “The Trump administration is fighting to protect our wallets, hearts, minds, and our freedoms . . . Democrat or Republican, you have a friend in the Trump administration to help you push back against the [Chinese Communist Party’s] exploitation of our open society.”

But the secretary gave a sober, policy-oriented speech, alerting state-level officials about CCP attempts to interfere in state politics. It was more a nonpartisan call to action than a Trump 2020 surrogate’s stump speech. And it was a good one, too.

Pompeo reprised the theme of remarks he gave to a meeting of the National Governors Association in February. He made headlines then for his warning to the governors: “Whether you are viewed by the CCP as friendly or hardline, know that it’s working you, know that it’s working the team around you.”

His remarks today built on that, calling attention to united-front foreign influence operations, which are a crucial instrument of CCP influence that are only beginning to be understood by U.S. policy makers:

We see it all over in America in sister-city programs – like the ones in Door County, La Crosse, Milwaukee, and Richland Center.  They fall under the authority of something called the Chinese People’s Association of Friendship with Foreign Countries.  Sounds benign.  But that group is part of China’s United Front Work Department – the CCP’s official overseas propaganda tool.  It’s one of the CCP’s three “Magic Weapons,” in the words of Chairman Mao, along with “armed struggle” and “party-building.”

In other words, it may have “friendly” in its title, but it is not so when it comes to American interests.

On the substance, Pompeo’s speech was much-needed. The location was similarly appropriate: As he noted in his remarks, the Wisconsin State Legislature was the focus of an attempt by Chinese diplomats to encourage the adoption of a resolution praising China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The Wisconsin address seems more akin to Pompeo’s July visit to the Nixon Library in California to give a major China policy speech than it does to his previous speeches with a more political bent.

The upshot isn’t that Pompeo used his Wisconsin visit to promote the president’s reelection effort; it’s that he’s spurred conversation about CCP influence campaigns across the country.

Anyone calling today’s address a Hatch Act violation has failed to grasp the most important part of the story.

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