After days of silence that drew internal criticism, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday addressed the State Department workforce about the fallout from the death of George Floyd, saying U.S. diplomats can tell an “extraordinary” story about how America responds to such tragedies when compared to places less free.
Floyd was an African-American who died in police custody after a Minneapolis officer pinned him down by his neck for nearly nine minutes. While Pompeo had called the case “abhorrent” in public, he had yet to send a note to the department addressing the issue, even though some of his top deputies had done so.
In an email Wednesday afternoon titled “Message from Mike: Representing American Values in Times of Difficulty,” Pompeo noted that Floyd’s death has reverberated worldwide. He said that now that Floyd has been buried, “it is appropriate” to address the concerns it has brought to surface -- concerns that have prompted widespread protests in the U.S. and beyond.
“Our own civic unrest gives us an extraordinary opportunity to tell our story abroad: the American response to events of these past weeks presents a stark contrast to what happens in totalitarian regimes around the world,” he wrote.
“We must reject unequivocally the false charges – many of them vile propaganda emanating from China, Iran and other autocracies – questioning America’s credibility in promoting human rights and democracy abroad.”
He pointed out, for instance, that “In the United States, when the people demand change or security or prosperity, politicians listen. In autocracies, the people don’t make demands of government for fear of being officially denounced, locked up, or executed.”
Pompeo discussed Floyd’s death in a press briefing at the State Department podium earlier on Wednesday, saying the U.S. is “special” because it deals with challenges like the Floyd tragedy “head on.” He also had previously addressed the matter on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox News show “Sunday Morning Futures” and issued a statement over the weekend trashing China for using the Floyd tragedy in its propaganda.
The secretary’s email Wednesday is his first direct outreach to the Department workforce writ large, and it followed news stories in POLITICO and elsewhere in which past and present U.S. diplomats and other staffers questioned his silence on the situation.
Critics of the Trump administration have also argued that the last few weeks have shown President Donald Trump’s own autocratic impulses, especially in the wake of Park Police firing using rubber bullets and pepper balls to force peaceful protesters away from the White House ahead of a presidential photo-op.
And authoritarian governments in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran have gleefully seized on the unrest on America’s streets, highlighting video clips of police using force against protesters and seeking to blur the lines between the U.S. and their own undemocratic systems.
Pompeo also addressed the always sensitive issue of diversity within the State Department. He said he’s proud that nearly a third of “our team members” are minorities, and that department staffers hail from every state.
Earlier this week, the American Academy of Diplomacy called on the State Department to do even more to recruit and promote women and minorities. The academy’s public statement added to the pressure on Pompeo to say something to his staff.
“Yes, the United States is imperfect,” the chief U.S. diplomat wrote. “The willingness to recognize where we have fallen short sets liberal democracy in America apart.”