WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is quietly relaunching his extravagant, taxpayer-funded dinner series known as the “Madison Dinners” in the middle of 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, revealed by an NBC News investigation in May, had been on pause since March, when the country shut down for 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 tell NBC News.
This time, Pompeo even initially arranged to hold Monday’s dinner at Blair House, the famed presidential guest house just steps from the White House. It was only 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 the dinner will be held indoors and guests presumably will not be wearing masks while eating and drinking. One 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 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,” said State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
The State Department also declined to disclose who will attend Monday’s dinner, which was first reported by Politico, although one U.S. official said that 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 iconic 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 say 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 U.S. 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 those plans were scuttled when the guest house became unavailable; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is visiting Washington, is staying at the guest house 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 on the books could be held at Blair House, including ones scheduled for Sept. 24 and 25 and for Oct. 26. Pompeo’s plans to use Blair House for the Madison Dinners has not been previously reported.
The secretary and his wife held some two-dozen of the lavish dinners before coronavirus in. Among the invitees were Supreme Court justices, billionaires and celebrities, in addition to foreign dignitaries. Every single House or Senate member invited was a Republican, according to a master invite list obtained by NBC News.
The dinners had raised concerns among State Department officials involved in planning the dinners 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 both 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.