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'No Laughing Matter': Pompeo's Comment On Legitimacy Of U.S. Election Raises Eyebrows At Home And Abroad

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “A smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” (file photo)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “A smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” (file photo)

In his post as the senior U.S. diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is charged with promoting democratic values.

That’s why his comments casting doubt on the election of former Vice President Joe Biden as the next U.S. president are prompting concern and outrage, with many questioning what kind of signals the remarks could be sending around the world.

Speaking to journalists in Washington on November 10, Pompeo was asked if the State Department was working with Biden to ensure a smooth transition of power in the interest of national security. Pompeo replied that he expected “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

Pompeo's remarks came as he is due to head off on a foreign tour with a stop in Georgia, which has been rocked by protests amid opposition claims of vote-rigging during recent parliamentary elections there. During his trip, which will include stops in Turkey, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, Pompeo will likely be meeting with world leaders who have already congratulated Biden.

Despite the fact that the November 3 election has been called in favor of Biden, who state ballot counts show secured more than enough Electoral College votes to win the presidency, Trump and his campaign have made unfounded allegations of electoral fraud and are trying to overturn the results in several states through the courts.

Pompeo later dismissed as “ridiculous” any suggestion that Trump’s evidence-free claims of widespread vote fraud could hurt America’s credibility when weighing in on foreign elections, and he continued to maintain that Trump might have won the election.

“Our adversaries should know that we’re ready, we’re continuing to work, we’ll work all the way through January. And then on January 20th, we’ll have a transition, whether it’s to a Trump administration -- a second Trump administration, as I spoke about today -- or to an administration led by former Vice President Biden,” he said in an interview with conservative U.S. radio host Tony Perkins.

In another interview on November 10, this one with Fox News, Pompeo appeared to warn Biden’s team over what he suggested could be inappropriate conversations with foreign leaders. He pointed to the Logan Act, a 1799 law that bars private citizens from conducting foreign policy on behalf of the United States.

“I’m always worried when people are engaging in activities, speaking with foreign leaders, in a way that represents things, that might be representing things that aren’t true or might be attempting to influence American foreign policy in ways that are inconsistent with what the law requires,” Pompeo said.

“You know the Logan Act. I know the Logan Act. I hope that all those folks who are out there having these conversations aren’t violating that law. I’m sure the Department of Justice will be keeping a good eye on that for us,” he said.

Due to the Trump administration's refusal to concede the election, congratulatory phone calls to Biden from world leaders -- normally facilitated in past transitions by the U.S. State Department -- are taking place through other channels.

Mark Takano, a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from California, voiced the dismay felt by many after Pompeo’s comments.

“Secretary Pompeo’s job is to call out authoritarian behavior abroad but his comments today made a mockery of our own democratic process,” Takano wrote on Twitter.

Biden, at least publicly, appeared to dismiss Pompeo’s remarks, saying “there is no evidence” backing the assertions of election fraud. He called Trump's refusal to concede an "embarrassment" that will "not help the president's legacy."

But others, including members of Congress, took Pompeo to task.

Eliot Engel, the outgoing chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement that Pompeo “shouldn’t play along with baseless and dangerous attacks on the legitimacy of last week’s election.”

"The State Department should now begin preparing for President-elect Biden’s transition,” said Engel, who has been a vocal critic of Pompeo.

Richard Haass, a veteran U.S. diplomat and president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the timing and context meant Pompeo’s remarks were no laughing matter.

“In another context, in another world, at another time, @SecPompeo's comment re a transition to a 2nd Trump administration might have been funny. But not in this context, in this world, at this time. Too much at stake for our democracy & our standing,” he wrote on Twitter.

Guy Verhofstadt, an EU liberal lawmaker and former Belgian prime minister, raised the specter of Russian President Vladimir Putin by accusing Pompeo on Twitter of “disingenuously preparing the ground for Putin-style authoritarianism!”

Pompeo also lashed out at a reporter’s question about how Trump’s rejection of the election results would be interpreted overseas.

“That’s ridiculous, and you know it’s ridiculous, and you asked it because it’s ridiculous,” Pompeo told the reporter who asked if Trump's stance jeopardized U.S. standing in the world. “You asked a question that is ridiculous. This department cares deeply to make sure that elections around the world are safe and secure and free and fair, and my officers risk their lives to ensure that that happens.”

In the recent past, Pompeo and the State Department have expressed concerns about irregularities in elections from Tanzania to Ivory Coast and Belarus.

Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus was declared the landslide winner of an August 9 poll that opponents and the West judged was rigged. The West -- including the United States -- has refused to recognize Lukashenka as the legitimate leader of Belarus, and dozens of Belarusian officials have been sanctioned by Washington as well as the European Union amid a wave of protests that have been cruelly crushed by Lukashenka’s regime.

“We want good outcomes for the Belarusian people, and we’ll take actions consistent with that,” Pompeo told RFE/RL in Prague on August 12.

Pompeo Says U.S. Will Look At Stopping Oil Shipments To Belarus
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“We’ve opposed the fact that he’s now inaugurated himself,” Pompeo said of Lukashenka in an interview with Fox News in October.

Now, the 66-year-old Lukashenka, in power since 1994, has seized on baseless doubts about the U.S. presidential election promulgated by Trump, Pompeo, and other Republicans in the United States to suggest Belarus is being unfairly singled out.

“Let's see how the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] will react to this,” Lukashenka was quoted on November 7 as saying by the state-run BelTA news agency. “And let's wait and see the German parliament, as I said yesterday, demand a new election in the United States. Today we see that a new election is warranted based on all kinds of irregularities, even domestic legislation violations."

In a January 2019 report on Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, whose 2018 reelection was not recognized by the United States and other Western countries, the State Department wrote: “On January 10, the term of former President Nicolas Maduro ended. He sought to remain in power based on his claimed ‘victory’ in the 2018 presidential elections widely condemned as neither free nor fair, a claim not accepted by the democratically elected National Assembly.”

The Trump administration’s record on foreign elections has been inconsistent. Trump congratulated Putin on his disputed 2018 reelection, even though his briefing notes for the telephone call said, “Do not congratulate.”

Trump congratulated incumbent Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on a “peaceful, fair, and transparent contest” in 2017, even though Kenya’s Supreme Court later annulled that vote.

The Trump administration also congratulated Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez after he successfully had the results of a violently disputed 2017 election overturned.

In his talks with senior Georgian officials next week, Pompeo will express U.S. “support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “urge further progress in democratic reforms,” according to the U.S. Embassy in Georgia.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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