Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s urge to release a new batch of Hillary Clinton's emails ahead of the November presidential election has sparked backlash and discomfort at the State Department among the Democrats on Capitol Hill, according to four officials and several congressional assistants.
The move came after President Donald Trump criticized Pompeo, one of his most loyal subordinates, for failing to publish Clinton's emails from her tenure as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, urging them to be released "as soon as possible," including a probable release before the election.
But his statement left more questions than answers – including what emails would be released, when and why, and why they suddenly needed to be released almost eight years after Clinton's resignation as Secretary of State. Within the State Department, some career officials even question whether obeying Pompeo's orders could constitute a violation of the Hatch Act, a federal law that restricts the political activities of government employees as part of their official duties.
A Democratic legislature specifically warned officials that such a move was illegal. "Any State Dept. employee who helps them influence an election is breaking the law." tweeted Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat and former State Department diplomat in the Obama administration. "Besides, if Secretary Pompeo spends a little less time messing up our foreign policy so that he can devote his full attention to violating Hillary Clinton's campaign, be my guest."
Several State Department officials describe a diplomatic corps that is already depleted and demoralized because it was drawn into political battles during the Trump era. Pompeo has abandoned the previous practice of state secretaries of staying out of domestic politics by taking unprecedented steps Mix up the priorities of Trump's campaign path with official State Department business. That year was also the Foreign Ministry forced onto the stage during Trump's impeachment proceedings, while Pompeo repeatedly clashed with Capitol Hill.
"It's bad when [Pompeo] only says the things he said to appease the boss. … If he's really pushing for real action internally, it's just much worse," said one official on condition of anonymity Such a move would mean "a complete loss of all impartial ideas in foreign policy [and] complete submission of the government machinery for Trump's electoral purposes."
Another official criticized Pompeo's move as "utter hypocrisy and utterly political", citing Pompeo's refusal to turn documents on other matters over to the House's democratically-led Committee on Foreign Affairs. "We all just see it as a joke," grumbled the officer. “How does that advance foreign policy? Four years ago, what exactly do Americans need to know from emails that have not yet been published? "
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Other legal experts said the move could pave the way for a future Joe Biden administration that could open probes for State Department management by Pompeo and other former Trump officials. "What about all communications between Trump administrators that are on State Department servers?" said Margaret Taylor, a Brookings Institution scholar and senior editor at Lawfare, a national security blog. "That seems like something Mike Pompeo wants to think about when making these statements."
A three-year US State Department investigation into Clinton's email servers published last year found that 38 people committed 91 security breaches among the 33,000 unique emails sent to or from her private server while serving as Secretary of State. However, it was concluded that the server was not often misused to misuse classified information.
"While there have been a few instances where classified information was inappropriately introduced into an unclassified system for convenience, respondents were broadly aware of the security policy and did their best to apply it to their operations," the concluded Foreign Ministry investigation.
The State Department did released Thousands of work-related emails during Clinton's tenure as Secretary of State.
But for Trump as for Pompeo, Clinton's emails are a constant refrain. Trump focused on Clinton's use of a private email server during his presidential campaign against her in 2016. As a Republican Congressman from Kansas, Pompeo was one of Clinton's most vocal critics during her tenure as Secretary of State House Select Committee on Benghazi to get her reaction to to review the terrorist attacks of 2012 and to oppose the use of a private e-mail server in the State Department.
When Pompeo responded to Trump's summons last Friday, Pompeo continued his year-long crusade against Clinton's emails, arguing that it was "unacceptable behavior" to classify information on a private server.
But for some State Department officials the irony is rich. Even those who criticized Clinton's use of a private email server found that senior Trump administration officials, including Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, use personal email accounts and WhatsApp to conduct and be official government business to communicate to foreign government officials. Other White House officials, including former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and advisor Stephen Miller, also used personal email accounts for official business New York Times reported in 2017. The practices concerns among cybersecurity experts who have questioned WhatsApp's communication encryption and data security since Facebook bought the app in 2014.