Memo reveals State Department dispute over Susan Pompeo’s travel

“To decline the invitation now could be seen as lack of courtesy, but there is no significant foreign policy interest here save the issue of courtesy,” argued the State Department’s Near Eastern Affairs bureau, which oversees the Middle East, in the six-page memo. The document was dated Jan. 7, 2019, the same day the trip began.

Despite the Middle East bureau’s stated reservations, the memo, labeled as “sensitive but unclassified,” recommends that Susan Pompeo’s travel be approved and partially paid for by government funds. It was not clear if then-Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, to whom the memo was addressed, formally signed off or not. Either way, Susan Pompeo went on the trip with her husband.

The memo sheds new light on the unusual, and controversial, role Susan Pompeo has played at the State Department since her husband took over as America’s chief diplomat in April 2018. Susan Pompeo has been an unusually active spouse, so much so that the State Department inspector general’s office is investigating whether she and her husband improperly used public resources.

State Department spokespersons did not immediately offer comment for this story, nor did Sullivan, who is now the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Mike Pompeo has vigorously defended his wife’s conduct in the past, dismissing criticism of her role as “sexist” and “badly dated and offensive.”

The Pompeos’ January 2019 journey lasted eight days, covering Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. In going on the trip, Susan Pompeo fulfilled one of the memo’s predictions: “There is a risk that Mrs. Pompeo’s travel during a shutdown could attract media attention and potential criticism in the Congress and elsewhere.”

Surely enough, several news reports emerged in which unnamed U.S. diplomats chafed at the idea that they would have to staff the secretary’s wife even as they faced furloughs and delayed paychecks.

But the secretary insisted that having his wife along was good for morale and America’s foreign standing. He called her a “force multiplier” and noted that she visited with the families of U.S. diplomats to get a sense of their quality of life.

Former State Department officials have mixed feelings about whether it’s a good idea to have a spouse travel with the secretary, though all acknowledge it’s not without precedent. Some who support the idea say that overall, the cost is minimal, especially if there’s space on the plane and the secretary and spouse share a room.

Foreign Service experts say there’s no clear budget line in appropriations bills to cover the expenses of the spouse of a secretary of State. Lawyers who helped draft the memo, however, noted that there are provisions that allow for U.S. funds to be used when a secretary’s family member acts in a “representational” capacity, and that Susan Pompeo’s stops in Cairo and Abu Dhabi would qualify.

According to the few lines in the memo credited to the Middle East bureau, the invitations to Susan Pompeo had been “extended and accepted.” The invitations had been extended in 2018; the events included dinners and a meeting with one country’s youth and culture minister.

What made the January 2019 trip even more challenging to tackle was the government shutdown. The closure was triggered by President Donald Trump’s brawl with Congress over funding to build a wall along the southern border.

The memo delves deep into what portions of Susan Pompeo’s trip taxpayers would cover – essentially, the costs related to Abu Dhabi and Cairo were largely. But it also makes clear the Pompeos must personally pay for several other pieces of Susan Pompeo’s trip.

The memo does not spell out the exact costs, and the State Department has not responded to past POLITICO requests for details on how much money the Pompeos spent on the Middle East trip.

Some former top department officials who reviewed the memo at POLITICO’s request were most struck by the carefully calibrated sentences from the Middle East bureau. They said it indicated clear divisions about whether Susan Pompeo should go on the trip but a hesitation to turn the issue into an all-out internal battle.

In the memo, the State Department’s executive secretary, Lisa Kenna – a top aide to Mike Pompeo – argued that Susan Pompeo’s presence at the functions in the United Arab Emirates and Egypt met requirements for spending amid the shutdown because she was invited by government ministers of those countries, “reflecting the importance they place on the event to strengthen bilateral ties.”

This was one of the points on which the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs differed, saying “there is no significant foreign policy interest here save the issue of courtesy.”

The head of that bureau at the time was David Satterfield, a decades-long career member of the U.S. Foreign Service. He is now the U.S. ambassador to Turkey. He did not reply to a request for comment.

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