Pompeo bringing back ‘Madison Dinners’ mid-pandemic

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quietly relaunching his extravagant, taxpayer-funded “Madison Dinners” during the coronavirus pandemic, even as Congress scrutinizes his use of government resources to entertain CEOs, big-dollar Republican donors and television anchors.

Pompeo’s Madison Dinners, which an NBC News investigation revealed in May, had been on pause since March, when the country shut down because of the coronavirus. But now they’re back, with a dinner scheduled for Monday and at least three others on the calendar in September and October, two U.S. officials said.

This time, Pompeo even initially arranged to hold Monday’s dinner at Blair House, the presidential guest house just steps from the White House. It was only at the last minute that the dinner was moved back to the State Department because Blair House became unavailable.

It’s unclear what coronavirus precautions, if any, are being taken, particularly considering that the dinner will be indoors and guests presumably won’t be wearing masks while eating and drinking. A State Department official said guests had been encouraged to get COVID-19 tests before the dinner but was unsure whether that was mandatory.

The State Department declined to answer questions about the resumption of the dinners, but it defended them as “foreign policy-focused social gatherings” that reflect “the finest tradition of diplomatic and American hospitality and grace.”

“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,” State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said.

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The State Department also declined to disclose who will attend Monday’s dinner, which was first reported by Politico, although a U.S. official said the Indian ambassador to the U.S. was among those invited. The Indian Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The earlier dinners were held in the State Department’s Diplomatic Reception Rooms, a museum of U.S. diplomacy that includes the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room and the Martha Washington Ladies’ Lounge.

But as Pompeo sought to resume the dinners this fall, the officials said, he sought a location even closer to the center of power in Washington: Blair House, where foreign heads of state often stay when visiting Washington and where the president-elect stays in the days before moving in to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Pompeo’s wife, Susan Pompeo, who is deeply involved in planning the dinners, even conducted a walk-through of Blair House in advance of Monday’s dinner, officials said. But the plans were scuttled when the guest house became unavailable; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is visiting Washington, is staying there this week.

Guests for Monday’s dinner, who had already been invited to attend at Blair House, were notified that the location was being moved back to the State Department, people familiar with the invitations said.

Officials said it was still possible that future Madison Dinners could be held at Blair House, including dinners scheduled for Sept. 24 and 25 and for Oct. 26. Pompeo’s plans to use Blair House for the Madison Dinners hasn’t been previously reported.

The secretary and his wife held two dozen of the lavish dinners before the coronavirus hit. Among the invitees were Supreme Court justices, billionaires and celebrities, in addition to foreign dignitaries. Every single House or Senate member who was invited was a Republican, according to a master invitation list obtained by NBC News.

The dinners had raised concerns among State Department officials involved in planning them that they were using federal resources to cultivate a donor and supporter base for Pompeo’s future political ambitions.

After NBC News reported on the dinners, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked the State Department for documents, cost information and any ethics guidance the department had sought. The State Department’s inspector general has also been conducting an investigation into potential misuse of government resources by Pompeo and his wife.