Pompeo used taxpayer money to host posh dinners with CEO of Chick-fil-A and Fox News hosts: report

While the department leads U.S. foreign policy, only 14% of the guests were actually diplomats or foreign officials

By Roger Sollenberger

Published May 21, 2020 4:00AM (EDT)

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (R) and Susan Pompeo arrive for the State Dinner at The White House (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (R) and Susan Pompeo arrive for the State Dinner at The White House (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly spent taxpayer money "well into the six figures" as he hosted billionaires, celebrities, conservative media personalities, foreign officials and politicians at dozens of opulent private dinners at the Department of State.

Pompeo and his wife Susan hosted at least 24 of the "Madison Dinners" since he took over as the nation's top diplomat in March 2018 following the ouster of Rex Tillerson, NBC News first reported.

Guest lists obtained by NBC News revealed that of the 500 guests who cycled through the department's upstairs event room, about 25% came from media and entertainment — mainly of conservative bents — 29% came from the corporate sector and 30% hailed from the political sphere. Every attendee from the House or Senate was a Republican.

Though the department is charged with leading the nation's foreign policy, only 14% of the guests were actually diplomats or other foreign officials.

The Pompeos named the dinners after James Madison, the fourth president and fifth secretary of state, who often invited foreign diplomats to discuss ideas over dinner. However, there is no apparent tradition of a secretary dipping into State Department funds to bankroll high-end affairs featuring political and business leaders.

For instance, invitees included Fox News host Laura Ingraham, AOL co-founder Steve Case and Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy, whose company has emerged as a culinary symbol of the culture wars between the religious right and progressives.

"The CEO of Chick-fil-A is not someone I would say is involved in foreign policy," someone familiar with the dinners told NBC News.

The Pompeos also extended invitations to several influential conservative political figures, including Republican megadonor and Home Depot founder Ken Langone, election strategist Karl Rove and David Urban, a lobbyist who currently sits on President Donald Trump's 2020 advisory committee.

While there is no evidence the dinners were a focus of recently-ousted inspector general Steve Linick's reported investigations, diplomatic officials told NBC News they had "raised concerns internally" that Pompeo — a far-right Republican who represented Kansas in the House of Representatives from 2012-2017 — was using the dinners to cultivate an influential base for a future political campaign.

Officials told NBC News that all of the data collected during the invitation process ended up in Susan Pompeo's private Gmail account, which could later be draw from as a potential donor list. The news comes after the department stepped up its years-long investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's practice of storing emails on a private server last December. 

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, requested "a complete accounting," telling the State Department that Pompeo "appears to be using those taxpayer resources to host large domestic-focused political gatherings that serve little-to-no foreign policy purpose."

With a reported eye on the 2024 presidential election, Pompeo has rebuffed conservative advances to run for Senate in Kansas. The Hatch Act bars most executive branch employees from engaging in political activity.

Additional eyebrow-raising guests include current officials, such as Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, NASCAR royalty Dale Earnhardt Jr. and country music icon Reba McEntire.

At a recent event in January — as Trump was trying to de-escalate tensions with Iran — national security adviser Robert O'Brien, Raytheon CEO Thomas Kennedy and the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. rubbed elbows with "Fox & Friends" co-host Brian Kilmeade.

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told NBC News that the events were "a world-class opportunity" to discuss "the complex foreign policy matters facing our exceptional nation."

"Foreign policy-focused social gatherings precisely like these are in the finest tradition of diplomatic and American hospitality and grace," Ortagus said. "The secretary looks forward to continuing these Madison Dinners, as they are an important component of the execution of his duties as secretary of state."

Linick, who was fired last week while reportedly investigating Pompeo's involvement in a Saudi arms deal, had allegedly been probing allegations that Pompeo delegated personal errands such as walking his dog and picking up his dry cleaning to an aide. The aide, Toni Porter, was also the head liaison between Pompeo and the office which ran the events.

In February, Pompeo told the American Conservative Union Foundation that "I'm not in it for the fancy dinners in Paris, or Switzerland or Vienna," a reference to frequent trips by former Secretary of State John Kerry.

"That, my friends, is a lot of cocktails," he said.

The previous night, Madison Dinner guests had gathered in the lobby for pre-dinner cocktails. A checklist for the events showed that a harpist was brought in to play at cocktail hour.

The dinners themselves were estimated to cost several hundred dollars a plate, a total tab which would have run "well into the six figures," according to NBC News.

Guests were gifted with a journal and pen bearing the Madison Dinner logo at the end of the night. The State Department ordered hundreds of each, reportedly paying $23.75 per pen and $8 per journal with taxpayer money.

One senior Trump administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told NBC News that "if the president knew about any of this, he would have fired Pompeo months ago."

Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

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Chick-fil-a Corruption Donald Trump Fox News Laura Ingraham Mike Pompeo Politics Republicans State Department Tv