WASHINGTON — After years of preaching that world leaders must swiftly abide by the verdicts of voters, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has settled on the opposite message at home.
Pompeo has called for a peaceful transition of power and free and fair elections in countless foreign countries, including just this week in Myanmar. Yet, the secretary is now also suggesting President-elect Joe Biden’s projected victory in the U.S. election could be reversed through legal action to award President Donald Trump another four years.
“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” Pompeo said with a grin Tuesday from the same podium at the Department of State where he and others have urged others to step aside after election defeats.
He added: “The world is watching what's taking place.”
Pompeo’s suggestion that Biden may not have won drew immediate backlash from U.S. diplomats, several of whom told NBC News the assertion undermined U.S. efforts to promote democracy, as well as critics who said Pompeo was doing precisely what he himself has repeatedly condemned in foreign countries.
“Foreign leaders appear to have greater respect for America’s norms than it appears the secretary of state does,” Wendy Sherman, a former State Department official who served in the Obama and Clinton administrations, said.
“It was an outrageous statement,” Sherman added. “It puts our national security at risk because it undermines our democratic transition.”
Just a day earlier, Pompeo had slapped sanctions on former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman for having "undermined democratic institutions.” And just as Trump’s team sues to stop vote counting in several states, Pompeo lamented “disenfranchisement” of voters in Myanmar, putting the fledgling democracy on notice the U.S. would “continue to closely monitor the electoral process.”
“We call on all relevant authorities to ensure tabulation of votes and resolution of complaints is undertaken in a transparent and credible manner,” Pompeo said.
Former Undersecretary of State James Glassman, who went on to start the George W. Bush Institute, said the United States for generations has been winning the argument that authoritarian countries like China should behave more democratically. He said Pompeo’s undermining of the election results plays to those adversaries’ hands.
“That’s a pretty strong argument the Chinese will be able to make, that you don’t need democracy, it produces some really bad results,” Glassman, who served under Bush but supported Biden this year, said.
Pompeo, in a Fox News interview late Tuesday, softened his earlier assertion about a second Trump term, instead emphasizing the need to finish counting votes and insisting “whoever is in office on Jan. 20” will have the tools to succeed.
Still, his suggestion the election’s outcome was still unclear came as key leaders around the world are already publicly congratulating President-elect Joe Biden on his projected victory.
That thrusts many of those same U.S. allies into an incredibly precarious diplomatic position as Pompeo begins a seven-country whirlwind tour Friday, potentially his last foreign trip before the Biden administration takes office in January.
What will French President Emmanuel Macron, who discussed everything from Covid-19 to African development in a call to Biden on Tuesday, say to Pompeo when he meets with him in Paris, with Pompeo still publicly claiming Trump will remain president next year?
How will Israeli Prime MInister Benjamin Netanyahu or Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, both of whom have publicly recognized Biden’s victory, answer questions from their own citizens about the legitimacy of the U.S. election when Pompeo visits their countries next week?
“Just saying hi, I suppose that's not too terribly difficult,” Pompeo said on Fox News when asked about foreign leaders congratulating Biden. “But make no mistake about it, we have one president, one secretary of state, one national security team at a time.”
Then, he added an ominous warning for Biden’s team about the Logan Act, which prohibits Americans — such as an incoming president — from conducting their own diplomacy on behalf of the U.S. government.
“I'm sure the Department of Justice will be keeping a good eye on that for us,” Pompeo said.
When Trump’s first national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, spoke with Russia’s ambassador in the days before Trump took office, it was not “just saying hi.” Flynn, instead, lobbied Moscow on how it should respond to Obama administration sanctions in intercepted phone calls. He later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those calls.
As Pompeo prepares for his overseas trip, two U.S. officials stationed overseas tell NBC News there has been no clear guidance to U.S. missions on how to address the election results.
But two State Department officials said separately that despite the Trump administration’s refusal to permit cooperation with Biden’s transition, U.S. officials have started quietly using back channels with members of Biden’s team in anticipation of the handover of power in January.
“His statements make it clear that he will use his office to hold the entire agency hostage until he is forced to give up power,” a State Department official said, speaking on the condition on anonymity about Pompeo's comments out of fear of retribution. “This is not how a democracy works. It makes sense why we have not received any guidance on preparing for the transition.”
Pompeo’s long-standing calls for other nations to respect the results of “free and fair elections” have dovetailed with a central line of U.S. diplomacy: promotion of democracy abroad. The State Department has an entire bureau, with offices and dedicated officials around the world, focused on it.
Last year, after a contested election for Istanbul mayor, Pompeo’s spokeswoman insisted that “acceptance of legitimate election results are essential for any democracy.” And in July, after a drawn-out battle over the integrity of elections in Guyana, Pompeo appeared on camera and said it was “long past due for a peaceful transition of power.”
“They should get on with it,” he said.