WASHINGTON – The invitation list for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s taxpayer-funded “Madison Dinners,” now under scrutiny by two congressional committees, included dozens of donors to Republican candidates and causes, campaign finance records show.
In May, NBC News revealed that Pompeo had held about two dozen dinners at the Department of Foreign Affairs – lavish private issues that official invitations described as a chance to gather “thinkers and leaders to share ideas about America and the world.”
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Pompeo’s Madison dinners are among the topics that several congressional committees are investigating when they interviewed State Inspector General Inspector Steve Linick on Wednesday. NBC News has previously reported that, just before Pompeo got him fired, Linick looked into the State Department’s Office of the Chief of the Protocol, which planned and conducted Madison Dinners.
The heavy concentration of Republican donors and power brokers who were invited or present marks a significant departure from former secretaries of state.
Former government officials from both parties said that Pompeo’s predecessors, while entertaining the government’s crown, were careful to ensure that the events were bipartisan, focused on a specific issue or theme and coordinated closely with other parts of the State Department whose work could be affected . None of these things happened to Madison Dinners, current Department of State officials said.
Cross-references from that list against federal campaign data revealed that 33 invitees have donated more than $ 10,000 apiece to Republican candidates and causes and that 17 have donated more than $ 50,000 apiece. Eleven donated to Pompeo’s campaigns while serving as a congressman from Kansas, including Adam Beren, president and president of Kansas-based Berexco, who donated money to Pompeo, as well as more than $ 225,000 to President Donald Trump’s campaign committee.
Every congressman invited to one of the dinners for one and a half years is a Republican, according to a master guest list obtained by NBC News.
There were also invited from right-wing advocacy groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, as well as conservative luminaries such as Oliver North and Karl Rove. Ten Republican members of the House and Senate were invited, as was Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots.
In some cases, Pompeo’s ambitions seemed to bring together a stellar event greater than he could draw.
Master golfer Jordan Spieth, Hall of Fame golfer Phil Mickelson, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and former player and NFL coach Tony Dungy were all invited but declined to participate. After six emails and two phone calls, Clint Eastwood’s staff finally told the Department of Foreign Affairs that the Hollywood Titan was bound in a movie, according to documents from the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Invitations to the media skewed strongly to the right, with more than 15 invitations to journalists from conservative leaning media such as Fox News’ Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade. Other media participants included CBS News Norah O’Donnell, CNN’s Jamie Gangel and CNBC’s Joe Kernen.
The three Supreme Court judges who received invitations – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito – were nominated by Trump or a former Republican president, George W. Bush. Only Alito was listed at present, according to the documents.
Now, Democrats in Congress are asking questions about the reasons for the dinners and demanding that the administration produce extensive documents and communications about the events.
The State Department has defended the dinners as perfectly appropriate and in accordance with American diplomatic tradition. Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Pompeo “has benefited greatly from these gatherings as he has gained knowledge listening to his guests from across the political spectrum and across the world.”
In a separate statement, a foreign ministry spokesman said: “NBC News has found that more than half of the dinner guests were not affiliated with the Republican Party, confirming the bipartisan character of these dinners. Madison Dinner will continue to lead foreign diplomats along with US political, business and media leaders to promote US national security interests and diplomacy. “
Under former secretaries of state, before a dinner, relevant officials in the department were consulted and weighed in with information documents depending on the agenda or which foreign diplomats participated, former officials said.
But that has not been the case with Pompeo’s dinners, with regional agencies and in-house experts who have not been informed or sought out in advance, current Foreign Ministry officials told NBC News.
State secretaries have tended to avoid domestic politics, and federal law prohibits them from participating in campaigns while on duty. Inviting legislators from only one party to the functions of the State Department and hosting party activists from mostly only one side of the spectrum poses a risk to that tradition, former officials said.
“I think most secretaries are very careful to avoid party politics, to make sure they are not involved in domestic politics,” said a former senior official who was familiar with how previous dinners were organized. “They understood politics as a fact of life, but they always believed that national security should not be mixed with politics at the State Department.”
The test for every State Department event held at the expense of taxpayers is whether it strengthens US foreign policy. “If the motive is to promote American national interests, that’s OK. If the motive is to promote personal interest, it’s not OK,” the former official said.
Pompeo is seen in Republican circles as a potential presidential candidate in 2024. To his critics, the taxpayer-funded dinners give Pompeo access to influential and wealthy people in the political and corporate realms that would be useful for any future mission. For others, the dinners are just regular fare in Washington.
David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor who attended one of the dinners, defended the events in one column. Ignatius noted that he criticized Pompeo severely for his handling of the Ukraine-related floor investigation and other issues, but he said the dinner he attended was a constructive, harmless gathering.
“Our democracy is facing some serious threats under President Trump. But social affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs with the secretary and his wife are not among them,” he wrote.
The Kansas City Star disagreed and wrote in an editorial that “Mike Pompeo’s shady, taxpayer-funded dinners should do him damages in Kansas.” The Leavenworth, Kansas, Times called it “not a good look.”
The dinners are named after James Madison, the United States’ fourth president and fifth secretary of state, and held in a lush reception room named after Madison and decorated to evoke America from the early 1800s.
In a letter to Pompeo at the end of May, the chairmen of the House Monitoring and Reform Committee and the Foreign Affairs Committee raised questions about the use of the diplomatic reception rooms for the dinners. According to federal regulations, the rooms may not be used for events “that have a partisan, political, sectarian or similar nature” or “a personal character, such as private parties or other social events not affiliated with or in support of, official U.S. government activity, “wrote the legislators.
“Sorry for filming”
For the dinners, Pompeo and his wife Susan sought out a Who’s Who of the best corporate executives in America, including CEO of IBM, JetBlue, oil giant ConocoPhillips and Google’s subsidiary Jigsaw, all of which were invited, according to State Department records.
The CEOs of Walmart, consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and Snap Inc., which owns Snapchat, were all invited to one or more dinners but eventually did not attend, confirmed people who know their invitations.
At least 15 of the people who were invited are leading companies that have received government contracts over the past three years. The companies included heavyweights such as General Electric, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Raytheon, in particular, has been favored by Trump’s firearms sales drive to Saudi Arabia.
Dinner invitations also went to several high-profile guests from the worlds of sports and entertainment, including Eastwood, which is listed in the Department of Foreign Affairs document as having “repented due to filming.”
High-ranking American tennis star John Isner said he was unable to attend due to a busy calendar. “I declined due to scheduling and was honored by the invitation and hope to be invited again. I am a big fan of the Secretary of State and think he is doing a fantastic job,” said an email from Isner’s representative.
Some guests from the business community described the dinners as opportunities to participate in “commercial diplomacy.” CIA Director Gina Haspel said through a spokesperson that the event she attended was “a great opportunity to hear the perspective of a diverse group of people on current foreign policy.”
However, some prominent Republicans were not invited. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., And his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, did not make the cut, nor did Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch of Idaho. Some other members of the Senate Republican leadership were also missing.
Before Democrats in Congress began to question Madison Dinners, Pompeo’s use of taxpayer-funded resources was the subject of an investigation by Linick, the inspector general, who Trump dismissed in May. Linick, among other things, looked at allegations that the secretary hired a political appointee to carry out personal affairs for him, such as fetching dry cleaning, former NBC News reported. Linick voluntarily submits to a private virtual interview Wednesday with Democratic and Republican members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Surveillance Committee, and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, all of whom are investigating Linick’s firing.
Pompeo has denied any wrongdoing or that he pushed for Linick’s dismissal as revenge for all pending investigations.
Former intelligence officials say similar questions were asked during his term as CIA director, including whether he used government facilities for purely recreational purposes.
Two current and two former U.S. officials said Pompeo, who led the CIA from January 2017 to April 2018, would sometimes invite friends to this weekend’s meetings at Scattergood-Thorne House, a four-story Georgian Revival home on the agency’s Langley, Virginia, campus that used as a conference center.
The receptions, which included Sunday meetings to watch NFL football, required government employees to open and staff the property, officials said.
A current and former official said Pompeo wanted a big-screen TV installed on Scattergood-Thorne so he and his friends could enjoy the games better. CIA officials expressed concern that it was inappropriate and would not be paid for with the agency’s funds, officials said.
Current and former officials said Pompeo also made a number of weekend visits with his wife to the agency’s training facility in Camp Peary, Virginia, known as the farm. The fitness center is on the York River next to Colonial Williamsburg.
“It was not something that broke the law, but it did raise eyebrows,” said an American official.
In response to requests from The Washington Post, the CIA 2018 acknowledged that Pompeo stayed with his wife and adult son in the yard during Christmas 2017.
A former US intelligence service familiar with the matter said Pompeo’s son during the visit participated in skeet shooting with agency staff.
The CIA said that Pompeo’s “stayed at an agency-owned facility for three days during Christmas 2017.” But the agency said they chose to do so instead of leaving the state and incurring additional costs to protect the family.
In a statement to NBC News, CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett said: “During his tenure here, former director Pompeo unapologetically advanced the agency’s mission, making it a top priority to engage CIA officials in expressing their deep appreciation and respect for their work. “
Unlike its predecessors on Foggy Bottom, Pompeo lives in government housing – a stately home usually reserved for flag officers in the military across the street from the State Department. Pompeo pays an undetermined amount to rent the property, and when the arrangement was made in 2018, officials said it would save taxpayers money by reducing significant security costs associated with a private home. The Foreign Ministry has said that Pompeo pays a fair market value for renting the home.