Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday accused a top Democrat of “hackery” over his public questioning of whether the chief U.S. diplomat had violated regulations governing American officials’ political activity.
In a blistering written attack on Bob Menendez, Pompeo also revealed that he’d been cleared by a federal watchdog of any rules violations.
It was the second time in recent days that Pompeo has blamed the New Jersey senator for unflattering attention he’s been receiving following his push to fire the State Department’s inspector general.
It underscores how poisonous Pompeo’s relationship with Democrats on the Hill has become since he took over as secretary of State two years ago.
“It is no surprise that you and I hold differing visions for America’s foreign policy mission,” Pompeo told Menendez in a letter dated Thursday. “But, for you and your staff to continue to address these different views by conducting character assassination attempts against me and my team … is not honorable or worthy of the trust Americans have placed in you.”
Pompeo effectively demanded that Menendez stop implying that the Office of Special Counsel, a federal watchdog unit, was still looking into whether a handful of trips Pompeo had taken to Kansas violated the Hatch Act.
The Hatch Act bars executive branch officials from conducting campaign work on the taxpayers’ dime. Pompeo’s disputed trips to Kansas were billed as official duties, even though he was known to be exploring a potential Senate run from the state. He has since ruled it out.
Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had written to the OSC in October and December requesting a review of Pompeo’s trips. In recent days, Menendez is reported to have said that he never received a response from the OSC.
The State Department on Thursday shared with reporters a letter to Pompeo from the OSC dated Jan. 21 in whichthe OSC tells Pompeo that it “has no evidence to conclude that you violated the Hatch Act. Therefore, we are closing this matter without further action.” The OSC letter noted that after the trips Pompeo had made it known that he would not run for the Senate.
In his missive to Menendez, Pompeo complains that the senator, through omission and other acts, has failed to be honest about the fact that the OSC found no wrongdoing.
“The OSC response to your hackery makes clear your continued effort to politicize legitimate and important diplomatic and national security activity was without merit,” Pompeo wrote. “The scurrilous allegations you put forward had the additional effect — one which you clearly intended when you publicized your letter to the OSC — of generating a continuing series of media articles and reports with rumors, innuendo and flat untruths about me and the U.S. Department of State.”
In a statement, Menendez pledged to keep asking tough questions of Pompeo and his department.
“High level temper tantrums will not stop the committee from conducting our oversight responsibilities,” he said. “I would love to engage Secretary Pompeo on the merits of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, and invite him yet again to come before our committee for a hearing on any number of important national security issues.”
Journalists who had reported on Menendez’s letter and subsequent comments were copied on Pompeo’s letter to the senator.
Pompeo and Menendez have had a number of bruising public exchanges over the years.
Earlier this month, during a news conference in which he was pressed about his role in firing of the State Department’s inspector general, Pompeo insisted he’d acted appropriately and then vented over Menendez. In doing so, he alluded to the senator’s past legal troubles.
“This is all coming through the office of Senator Menendez,” Pompeo said. “I don’t get my ethics guidance from a man who was criminally prosecuted — case number 15-155 in New Jersey federal district court — a man for whom his Senate colleagues, bipartisan, said basically that he was taking bribes. That’s a — that’s not someone who I look to for ethics guidance.”
The Department of Justice dropped the New Jersey senator’s case in 2018 after a trial resulted in a hung jury. Menendez has always maintained his innocence.
Menendez is among Pompeo’s most vociferous critics on the Hill. And because he serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has played a role in slowing down the confirmation process for some of President Donald Trump’s nominees for the State Department.
Menendez’s defenders, however, say Pompeo has been largely uncooperative when lawmakers have tried to probe potential wrongdoing at the State Department. During Trump’s Ukraine-related impeachment trial, for instance, Pompeo ignored virtually all requests for documents and information from lawmakers.
Critics of the secretary also note that when Pompeo was in Congress, he rarely held back in attacking the Democrats who hold his current position. He was particularly intense in his criticism of Hillary Clinton over the 2012 Benghazi attacks.
At the end of his letter to Menendez, Pompeo stresses that the State Department has a domestic mission as well. He says he’d be happy to arrange a briefing so that the senator and his staff can learn more about State’s many programs.
“There is much important work to do, Bob,” Pompeo writes. “Let’s stay focused on it.”