Veteran U.S. diplomats say they are hard-pressed to recall spouses of past secretaries of State being as involved as Susan Pompeo in department business—certainly not in recent decades. But her defenders argue that those women and men have all played roles in their spouses’ political careers at one point or another, even if that didn’t involve spending time at the office in Foggy Bottom.
“Susan provides tremendous lift to our diplomatic mission by meeting with spouses of new Foreign Service officers, speaking to families headed overseas for first time assignments and making sure that foreign diplomats and their spouses are always treated with kindness and warmth, reflecting the finest tradition of America,” Mike Pompeo said in his statement. “She meets with families of our foreign service officers overseas, visits schools and medical facilities; she talks with single Foreign Service officers around the world and champions quality of life issues for all of them. She supports the private citizen groups working to provide art in our embassies in all reaches of the world and those who sustain the Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms and makes herself available to the Museum of Diplomacy.”
Several State Department employees said their main frustration with Susan Pompeo is that she does not hold an official position and yet still feels comfortable giving them work to do. And there is always a sense that if they don’t meet her expectations, they would get in trouble, even though she was not in their chain of command.
“She gave instructions. She tasked people,” one staffer said. “It was unspoken that you’d be held accountable.”
Also controversial within the department, and outside of it, are the continuing efforts Susan Pompeo has made to, as some see it, burnish her husband’s career and build out his political network while he is serving as America’s top diplomat.
She was the architect of a series of around two-dozen “Madison Dinners” held in the State Department’s swanky diplomatic rooms. The intimate events, details of which were first reported by NBC News, usually featured a foreign dignitary and a mix of wealthy corporate executives, conservative media stars and other assorted influential tablemates. Susan Pompeo was deeply involved in organizing the dinners, selecting the guest lists, food and seating arrangements, tracking RSVPs and following up regularly with the State Department staffers tasked with organizing them. The chefs would make a themed cocktail for the dinners, usually something seasonal and sometimes named after historical figures.
People involved in organizing the dinners had concerns about whether they were a lawful use of State Department money because such funds are supposed to be used for department business — not to promote the secretary’s political or partisan ambitions. One former State Department official described feeling “uncomfortable” with the events, which appeared to have minimal connection to American diplomacy. But the secretary’s legal advisers always greenlighted them.
Aides to Pompeo have defended the Madison Dinners as, among other things, a way for the State Department to explain its mission to influential figures. “Foreign policy-focused social gatherings precisely like these are in the finest tradition of diplomatic and American hospitality and grace,” department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.
Events involving Susan Pompeo often required careful orchestration, apparently aimed at ensuring the letter of U.S. rules and regulations were being followed, and funds used correctly.
During the U.N. General Assembly last year, for instance, she held a coffee event for the spouses of visiting foreign diplomats. An invitation to the event, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, officially came from the chief of protocol, though it made clear that the invitees would be seeing Susan Pompeo.
The invitation had to be structured that way so that the expenses were covered by the protocol office, two State Department officials said. There is no pot of money directly dedicated to covering the expenses of the secretary’s spouse, State Department veterans say. The Sept. 27 event cost at least $1,028.28 for the food alone, according to the invoice. The invoice listed it as a gathering for the spouses of foreign officials from the Pacific Islands, but another document indicates that spouses of officials from other parts of the world were there, including Egypt, Algeria and Azerbaijan.
But while some department staffers may wince at this use of resources, others in the diplomatic world see nothing wrong with it. “It is a kind of courtesy,” said Patrick Kennedy, a former undersecretary of State for management. “That’s what diplomacy is all about—there are courtesies involved.”
According to interviews and several emails and other documents obtained by POLITICO, Susan Pompeo is deeply involved with the State Department’s gift-giving and receiving procedures, which are overseen by the protocol office; the office tracks gifts sent to the Pompeos from foreign dignitaries, as well as gifts the Pompeos send their counterparts.
According to a set of meeting notes dated Feb. 1, 2019, Susan Pompeo reviewed a litany of specific gift options presented to her by State Department staffers and offered guidance about what types of gifts she and her husband liked to give. The meeting participants were told the secretary “likes ties as a gift” and “also loves maps, which could be an option.” Susan Pompeo also conveyed that her husband wanted to give gifts that reflect his personal history and that he “prefers to showcase vendors from all across U.S. not just the east coast area.”
Susan Pompeo also at times directs the office to use gifts from a Kansas vendor. One favorite appears to be Karg Art Glass, which produces colorful glass sculptures. According to the meeting notes, she had very specific instructions about the types of Karg Art options she preferred. “She’s interested in seeing their necklace pieces that can be paired with a leather cord as a necklace for a spousal gift option as well,” the notes read.
Two State Department officials said past secretaries of State and their spouses showed little, if any, direct interest in the details of the gifts, but the Pompeos—Susan in particular—were so involved that it took up a significant amount of time for staffers. It also adds to the department’s expenses because Susan Pompeo often wants to present her own gifts.