Despite ethics concerns, Pompeo's controversial Madison Dinners return

Faced with questions about alleged ethical lapses, the Kansas Republican chooses to engage in more overt ethical lapses.
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By Steve Benen

If cabinet officials are judged solely by the volume of alleged ethical lapses, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is arguably the most controversial member of Donald Trump's team.

The Kansas Republican has been accused of using governmental business to advance his political ambitions. Pompeo has also allegedly misused federal resources to benefit himself and his family. Just three weeks ago, a panel on the House Foreign Affairs Committee opened an investigation into the cabinet secretary's bizarre remarks at the Republican National Convention.

Meanwhile, late last week, McClatchy News reported that "Pompeo assigned official government work to one of his top advisers through his wife, Susan, who used a private email account to relay his requests," according to congressional testimony from Toni Porter, one of Pompeo's longtime confidantes and employees.

Politico added the same afternoon, "Two close aides to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told a colleague she could take her time before talking to the State Department inspector general's office for an investigation into Pompeo and his wife. The two Pompeo aides appeared to be hinting that the probe could fade away -- 'resolve itself,' in the words of the fellow staff member. Pompeo, after all, had recently managed to have the inspector general fired."

Given all of this, common sense suggests Pompeo should be going out of his way to stay out of trouble right now. And yet, NBC News reported overnight that Pompeo is "quietly relaunching his extravagant, taxpayer-funded 'Madison Dinners' during the coronavirus pandemic."

Pompeo's Madison Dinners, which an NBC News investigation revealed in May, had been on pause since March, when the country shut down because of the coronavirus. But now they're back, with a dinner scheduled for Monday and at least three others on the calendar in September and October, two U.S. officials said.

The Pompeos reportedly sought use of the Blair House, which is across the street from the White House -- Susan Pompeo apparently even conducted a walk-through -- but the venue ultimately wasn't available, and today's event will be held at the State Department.

For those who may need a refresher, NBC News first reported in May on Pompeo hosting a series of elaborate and unpublicized Madison Dinners at the State Department, with elite guest lists featuring "billionaire CEOs, Supreme Court justices, political heavyweights and ambassadors."

As regular readers may recall, the soirees -- paid for by taxpayers and held in a public building -- led State Department officials to ring the alarm, and for good reason. The NBC News report added that these officials saw these gatherings as "essentially using federal resources to cultivate a donor and supporter base for Pompeo's political ambitions -- complete with extensive contact information that gets sent back to Susan Pompeo's personal email address."

The dinners ceased for six months, not because of the controversy, but because of the pandemic. The crisis, of course, is far from over, but the cabinet secretary is relaunching the gatherings anyway.

It's an example of a specific political posture: aggressive indifference. Faced with questions about alleged ethical lapses, the Kansas Republican engages in more overt ethical lapses. Are people outraged? Pompeo doesn't care. Is Congress asking questions? He'll ignore them. Do the controversies make the ostensible diplomat appear corrupt? He shrugs his shoulders and does as he pleases.

If Pompeo seeks the presidency in 2024, keep all of this in mind.