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Pompeo Plans To Address RNC From Israel

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is mixing diplomacy and politics on his current trip to Israel. He is expected to record a message there for the Republican National Convention, breaking a longstanding norm for secretaries of state. No one in that position in recent history has addressed their party's political convention. NPR's Michele Kelemen explains why.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On the one hand, this has the trappings of a usual diplomatic work trip. Soon after arriving in Israel, Secretary Pompeo spoke alongside the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, hailing a recent diplomatic deal that will pave the way for normal ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: I'm a frequent visitor here, and each time we build on the relationship.

KELEMEN: This time, though, he's not just having meetings. He's also recording a message to air on Tuesday at the Republican National Convention. Halie Soifer of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, an advocacy group, calls that unprecedented and highly unethical.

HALIE SOIFER: Israel is being used as a prop or a backdrop for partisan politicking, which is unheard of and also underscores President Trump's ongoing effort to politicize the U.S.-Israel relationship.

KELEMEN: In a written statement, the State Department says Pompeo is addressing the convention in his personal capacity. No staff are involved in preparing the remarks or arranging the appearance, the statement goes on to say. Soifer, who worked in the State Department during the Obama administration, doesn't buy it.

SOIFER: He's on a military airplane. He has State Department officials who are staffing him on the ground. This is an official trip. Just because he goes somewhere else for an hour to give this partisan speech doesn't mean that he's not on official travel. He's on official travel.

KELEMEN: A well-known Republican foreign policy expert Philip Zelikow agrees, pointing out that U.S. law prohibits public servants from spending their time working on political campaigns. He was a top adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and says there's a reason that she and other secretaries have tried to stay above the political fray. They're supposed to represent all Americans, especially when they're abroad talking to other world leaders.

PHILIP ZELIKOW: So all past secretaries of state for at least the last hundred years or more have, therefore, believed it would be a breach of their duty to the American people if they chose to play an openly partisan role in political campaigns or at the convention of their president's political party.

KELEMEN: Zelikow teaches history at the University of Virginia and remembers when George H.W. Bush wanted his secretary of state, James Baker, to help him campaign.

ZELIKOW: Baker resigned the office of secretary of state during the summer of 1992 in order to go to work on the campaign back in the White House. And Baker was a very political person, but he knew that he could not play that role and also be the secretary of state.

KELEMEN: Some people may think this is old fashioned, but Zelikow doesn't view it that way.

ZELIKOW: People will miss these norms when they're gone.

KELEMEN: This is not the first time Secretary Pompeo has raised eyebrows for partisan politics. He ridiculed his predecessor at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. He's also addressed the Values Voter Summit all while serving as America's top diplomat.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.