Dozens of GOP donors invited to Pompeo's taxpayer-funded 'Madison Dinners'

Of 360 invitees, at least 150 were from groups that are overtly conservative, formally affiliated with the Republican Party or from right-wing media.
Image: FILES-US-CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS-DIPLOMACY-POMPEO
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pauses while speaking at a news conference at the State Department on April 29, 2020.Andrew Harnik / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Dan De Luce, Laura Strickler, Josh Lederman and Kit Ramgopal

WASHINGTON — The invitation list for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's taxpayer-funded "Madison Dinners," now under scrutiny by two congressional committees, included dozens of donors to Republican candidates and causes, campaign finance records show.

In May, NBC News revealed that Pompeo had held some two dozen of the dinners at the State Department — lavish private affairs that official invitations described as a chance to gather "thinkers and leaders to share ideas on the future of America and the world."

Now, an analysis of Federal Election Commission data and internal State Department documents shows that out of a total of 360 people sent invitations, at least 150 were from groups that are overtly conservative, formally affiliated with the Republican Party or right-wing media outlets. Most of the others were from the private sector, with a smaller number from the diplomatic world.

Pompeo's Madison Dinners are among the topics multiple congressional committees are investigating as they interview fired State Department Inspector General Steve Linick on Wednesday. NBC News has previously reported that Linick, shortly before Pompeo had him fired, was looking into the State Department's Office of the Chief of Protocol, which planned and executed the Madison Dinners.

The heavy concentration of Republican donors and power brokers who were invited or attended marks a significant departure from the practice of past secretaries of state.

Former officials from administrations of both parties said Pompeo's predecessors, when they entertained on the government's dime, were careful to ensure that the events were bipartisan, focused on a specific issue or theme and coordinated closely with other parts of the State Department whose work could be affected. None of those things happened with the Madison Dinners, current State Department officials said.

An invitation to a Madison Dinner from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, obtained by NBC News.via NBC News

Cross-referencing that list against federal campaign data revealed that 33 invitees have donated more than $10,000 apiece to Republican candidates and causes and that 17 have donated more than $50,000 apiece. Eleven donated to Pompeo's campaigns when he served as a member of Congress from Kansas, including Adam Beren, chairman and president of Kansas-based Berexco, who contributed money to Pompeo, as well as more than $225,000 to President Donald Trump's campaign committees.

Every member of Congress invited to one of the dinners over a year and a half is a Republican, according to a master guest list obtained by NBC News.

There also were invitees from right-leaning advocacy groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, as well as conservative luminaries such as Oliver North and Karl Rove. Ten Republican members of the House and the Senate were invited, as was Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots.

In some cases, Pompeo's ambitions to convene a star-studded event seemed larger than what he was able to pull off.

Champion golfer Jordan Spieth, Hall of Fame golfer Phil Mickelson, Duke University men's basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and former player and NFL coach Tony Dungy all were invited but declined to attend. After six emails and two phone calls, Clint Eastwood's staff ultimately told the State Department that the Hollywood titan was tied up on a film shoot, according to State Department documents.

Invitations to the media skewed heavily to the right, with more than 15 invitations going to journalists from conservative-leaning media outlets such as Fox News' Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade. Other media attendees included CBS News' Norah O'Donnell, CNN's Jamie Gangel and CNBC's Joe Kernen, the documents show.

The three Supreme Court justices who got invitations — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito — were nominated by Trump or a previous Republican president, George W. Bush. Only Alito was listed as attending, according to the documents.

Now, Democrats in Congress are raising questions about the rationale for the dinners, demanding that the administration produce extensive documents and communications about the events.

The State Department has defended the dinners as entirely appropriate and in keeping with American diplomatic tradition. Spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Pompeo "has benefited greatly from these gatherings as he has gained knowledge listening to his guests from all across the political spectrum and all around the world."

In a separate statement, a State Department spokesperson said: "NBC News has found that more than half of the dinner guests were not affiliated with the Republican Party thus confirming the bipartisan nature of these dinners. The Madison Dinners will continue to bring foreign diplomats together with American political, business, and media leaders to help advance U.S. national security interests and diplomacy."

Under previous secretaries of state, in advance of a dinner, relevant officials inside the department were consulted and weighed in with briefing papers depending on the agenda or which foreign diplomats were attending, former officials said.

But that has not been the case with Pompeo's dinners, with regional bureaus and in-house experts not informed or sought out beforehand, current State Department officials told NBC News.

Secretaries of state have tended to steer clear of domestic politics, and federal law prohibits them from engaging in campaigning while in office. Inviting lawmakers from only one party to State Department functions and hosting partisan activists from mostly only one side of the spectrum pose a risk to that tradition, former officials said.

"I think most secretaries are very careful to avoid partisan political activities, to make sure that they aren't involved in domestic politics," a former senior official familiar with how past dinners were organized said. "They understood politics as a fact of life, but they always thought that the national security was not to be mixed in with politics at the State Department."

The test for any State Department event held at taxpayers' expense is whether it bolsters U.S. foreign policy. "If the motive is to advance U.S. national interests, it's OK. If the motive is to advance personal interest, it's not OK," the former official said.

Pompeo is seen in Republican circles as a potential presidential candidate in 2024. To his critics, the taxpayer-funded dinners give Pompeo access to influential and wealthy figures in the political and corporate realms who would be useful for any future run for office. To others, the dinners are merely standard Washington fare.

David Ignatius, a Washington Post columnist and MSNBC contributor who attended one of the dinners, defended the events in a column. Ignatius noted he has harshly criticized Pompeo over his handling of the Ukraine-related impeachment inquiry and other issues, but he said the dinner he attended was a constructive, harmless gathering.

"Our democracy faces some severe threats under President Trump. But social events at the State Department with the secretary and his wife are not among them," he wrote.

The Kansas City Star disagreed, writing in an editorial that "Mike Pompeo's gaudy, taxpayer-funded dinners should make him damaged goods in Kansas." The Leavenworth, Kansas, Times called it "not a good look."

The James Madison Dining Room in the Harry S. Truman Federal Building, the headquarters of the State Department.Carol Highsmith / Library of Congress

The dinners are named after James Madison, America's fourth president and fifth secretary of state, and are held in an opulent reception room named after Madison and decorated to evoke early 19th-century America.

In a letter to Pompeo in late May, the chairs of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee raised questions about the use of the Diplomatic Reception Rooms for the dinners. Under federal regulations, the rooms are not to be used for events "that have a partisan, political, sectarian, or similar nature" or "a personal nature, such as private parties or other social events which are not affiliated with, or in support of, official U.S. Government business," the lawmakers wrote.

'Regretted due to filming'

For the dinners, Pompeo and his wife, Susan, sought out a Who's Who of the top corporate leaders in America, including the CEOs of IBM, JetBlue, oil giant ConocoPhillips and Google subsidiary Jigsaw, who were all invited, according to State Department records.

The CEOs of Walmart, consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton and Snap Inc., which owns Snapchat, all were invited to one or more dinners but ultimately did not attend, people familiar with their invitations confirmed.

At least 15 of the people who were invited lead companies that have received government contracts over the past three years. The companies included heavyweights such as General Electric, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Raytheon, in particular, has benefited from Trump's push for arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Dinner invitations also went to several high-profile guests from the worlds of sports and entertainment, including Eastwood, who is listed in the State Department document as having "regretted due to filming."

Top-ranked U.S. tennis star John Isner said he was unable to attend because of a busy calendar. "I declined because of scheduling and was honored by the invite and hope to be invited again. I am a big fan of the Secretary of State and think he is doing an amazing job," an emailed statement provided by Isner's representative said.

Some guests from the business community described the dinners as opportunities to participate in "commercial diplomacy." CIA Director Gina Haspel said through a spokesperson that the event she attended was "an excellent opportunity to hear perspectives from a diverse group of people on current foreign policy."

CIA Director Gina Haspel arrives for the State of the Union address at the Capitol on Feb. 4, 2020.rendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images

Some prominent Republicans were not invited, however. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and his wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, did not make the cut, nor did the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, James Risch of Idaho. Also missing were any other members of the Senate Republican leadership.

Before Democrats in Congress started asking questions about the Madison Dinners, Pompeo's use of taxpayer-funded resources was the subject of an inquiry by Linick, the inspector general, whom Trump fired in May. Among other things, Linick was looking into allegations that the secretary enlisted a political appointee to carry out personal errands for him, like picking up dry cleaning, NBC News previously reported. Linick is voluntarily submitting to a private virtual interview Wednesday with Democratic and Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the House Oversight Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all of which are investigating Linick's firing.

Pompeo has denied any wrongdoing or that he pushed for Linick's sacking as retaliation for any pending investigations.

Former intelligence officials say similar questions were raised during his tenure as CIA director, including whether he used government facilities for purely recreational purposes.

Two current and two former U.S. officials said Pompeo, who led the CIA from January 2017 to April 2018, would occasionally invite friends to weekend gatherings at Scattergood-Thorne House, a four-story Georgian Revival home on the agency's Langley, Virginia, campus that is used as a conference center.

The receptions, which included Sunday gatherings to watch NFL football, required government employees to open and staff the property, the officials said.

One current and one former official said Pompeo wanted a big-screen television installed at Scattergood-Thorne so he and his friends could better enjoy the games. CIA officials expressed concerns that it was inappropriate and should not be paid for with agency funds, the officials said.

But a source close to Pompeo denied that account, saying: “That is false.”

The current and the former officials said Pompeo also made a number of weekend visits with his wife to the agency's training facility at Camp Peary, Virginia, known as the Farm. The training campus is on the York River next to Colonial Williamsburg.

An invitation to a Madison Dinner from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, obtained by NBC News.via NBC News

"It wasn't anything that broke the law, but it raised eyebrows," a U.S. official said.

In response to inquiries from The Washington Post, the CIA acknowledged in 2018 that Pompeo stayed with his wife and adult son at the Farm during Christmas 2017.

A former U.S. intelligence official familiar with the matter said that during the visit, Pompeo's son participated in skeet shooting with agency personnel.

The CIA said the Pompeos "stayed at an Agency-owned facility for three days over Christmas 2017." But the agency said they opted to do so instead of traveling out of state and incurring additional costs to protect the family.

In a statement to NBC News, CIA press secretary Timothy Barrett said, "During his time here, former Director Pompeo unapologetically advanced the Agency's mission while making it a top priority to engage CIA Officers to express his deep appreciation and respect for their work."

“As director of the CIA, the Secretary spent time at the facility over Christmas in an effort to allow staff to spend time with their families,” said the source close to Pompeo.

Unlike his predecessors at Foggy Bottom, Pompeo lives in government housing — a stately home usually reserved for flag officers in the military. Pompeo pays an undisclosed amount to rent the property, and when the arrangement was made in 2018, officials said it would save taxpayers money by reducing significant security costs associated with a private residence. The State Department has said Pompeo pays fair market value to rent the home.

Lisa Cavazuti, Ken Dilanian, Robert Windrem and Andrea Mitchell contributed.