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Under fire, Pompeo vouches for Trump's 'America First'

Analysis: The secretary of state's precedent-busting RNC address from Jerusalem cemented Pompeo's status as one of Trump's most fervent defenders.
Image: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is seen giving his live address to the 2020 Republican National Convention from Israel on a TV at the White House in Washington
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the 2020 Republican National Convention from Israel on a monitor set up in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington on Tuesday.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo never mentioned his role as America's top diplomat, fourth in line for the presidency, as he beamed into the Republican National Convention from Jerusalem on Tuesday night.

He didn't have to.

As the House investigates Pompeo's precedent-busting address to the Republican convention — violating his own department's legal guidance and potentially federal law — he plowed ahead, cementing his status as the most fervent defender of President Donald Trump's "America First" doctrine.

Pompeo suggested that if the United States under Trump has become more isolated on the world stage, it's a small price to pay for shoring up freedom and security for Americans.

"It may not have made him popular in every foreign capital, but it has worked," Pompeo said of his boss.

The telegenic backdrop for his recorded address was the iconic Old City, with the glistening Dome of the Rock behind him, a powerful visual reminder that Pompeo had traveled to the city that is home to some of the holiest sites in Christianity and Judaism, not to mention Islam.

It was an unmistakable signal to American evangelicals, a core component of Trump's base, whose support for the president has largely held firm and could be pivotal if Pompeo pursues his own presidential run in 2024.

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To Pompeo's critics, it was also a vivid illustration of how he has parlayed his role as secretary of state into significant opportunities to build out his own political base.

As if to troll his critics who have deplored his intermingling of diplomacy and partisan politics, Pompeo skipped right over his role as Trump's Senate-confirmed secretary of state Tuesday night.

"I have a big job ... as Susan's husband and Nick's dad," Pompeo said from Jerusalem, where he was traveling on a U.S. government aircraft on an official diplomatic mission. "They are more safe, and their freedoms more secure, because President Trump has put his America First vision into action."

Just hours before, House Democrats announced that they had launched an investigation into Pompeo's decision to deliver the speech, including what they alleged were potential violations of the Hatch Act, a federal law prohibiting federal workers from many political activities.

In response to that line of allegation, the State Department has insisted that Pompeo was appearing at the RNC "in his personal capacity" — an argument that his critics said is absurd. The State Department also said no government resources were being used to support the recorded address, another claim that was quickly questioned and is now subject to the House inquiry.

And indeed, he avoided any reference at all to Joe Biden. Mentioning Trump's Democratic opponent would almost surely have amped up outrage from Democrats and even some Republicans about Pompeo's politicizing the role of secretary of state.

"His speech was pretty inconsequential. I am glad he didn't engage in an over-the-top, overtly political speech. I'm glad he didn't spend 15 minutes from Jerusalem savaging Joe Biden," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "But that begs the question: Why do it? Why give a speech like that when the downside to the credibility of the office is so significant?"

Indeed, if there was any suggestion that some aspect of Pompeo's résumé other than his Cabinet position had qualified him for a prime RNC speaking slot, he quickly put that to bed as he delivered a strident testament to Trump's record on matters of war and peace — one that glossed over the long list of instances when Trump's own national security objectives have thus far gone unmet.

Pompeo credited the president for ending "ridiculously unfair trade deals with China that punched a hole in our economy" and asserted that "those jobs are coming back home" — even though Trump's Phase 1 trade deal with Beijing has yet to produce anything near the $77 billion in added U.S. products China pledged to buy this year. The Phase 2 deal he once teased is nowhere in sight.

He argued that "NATO is stronger" after four years of Trump's leadership, although the president has repeatedly threatened to leave the alliance and attacked multilateral institutions from the World Health Organization to UNESCO.

He touted how Trump has "lowered the temperature" with North Korea and, "against all odds, got North Korean leadership to the table." Pyongyang has cut off talks with Washington, and it has continued building nuclear warheads throughout Trump's term.

Pompeo said Trump had "squeezed the ayatollah" as he pulled the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal struck by former President Barack Obama. That move significantly isolated the U.S. from its closest European allies, most recently leading to its being rebuked at the U.N. Security Council as it tried and failed to rally support for a resolution to snap sanctions back on Tehran.

His only reference to the coronavirus pandemic came as he praised Trump for holding "China accountable for covering up the China virus and allowing it to spread death and economic destruction in America and around the world."

In other corners of the world, Pompeo found more fertile territory to boast of diplomatic accomplishments that eluded Trump's predecessors.

He called attention to Trump's actions to eliminate the remnants of the Islamic State terrorist group's territorial caliphate and the operation he ordered that killed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

He celebrated the "historic peace deal" between Israel and the United Arab Emirates that the Trump administration brokered this month, which already has shown signs of opening the door for other Arab nations to normalize ties with Israel. And, standing in Jerusalem, he touted the Trump administration's decision to finally move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv, which delighted many U.S. Jews and evangelicals.

"As a soldier, I saw, firsthand, people desperate to flee to freedom," said Pompeo, a former Army officer. "The way each of us can best ensure our freedoms is by electing leaders who don't just talk, but deliver."