BUSHNELL — In between bilateral talks in Jamaica, clashing with an NPR reporter and huddling with world leaders in Europe, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo managed to squeeze in an appearance in Bushnell last month.
If Pompeo had a reason for stopping in this city of 3,100 on Jan. 23, he didn’t reveal it during his brief remarks at the Sumter County Fairgrounds. After 30 minutes there, his motorcade pulled out of the parking lot and sped away.
But, it turns out, he wasn’t ready to leave Florida quite yet.
From the fairgrounds, Pompeo took an unannounced side trip to The Villages, the booming retirement haven and prodigious Republican stronghold. The Tampa Bay Times confirmed the undisclosed stop by obtaining records from two law enforcement agencies involved in the security detail that day, shedding new light on Pompeo’s out-of-the-way trip to Central Florida.
Although it’s still not clear why Pompeo ventured to The Villages, the trail of paperwork reviewed by the Times traced Pompeo’s movements that day to the doorstep of one of the wealthiest Republican donors in Central Florida: the Morse family.
Pompeo’s unannounced stop in The Villages could revive scrutiny of the secretary of state’s domestic travel. His previous trips across the United States fueled speculation that the former Republican congressman is mounting a bid for the U.S. Senate in his home state of Kansas.
Pompeo would have to resign his federal Cabinet post if he officially announced a campaign for office. Instead, he has publicly stated he doesn’t plan to run.
The U.S. State Department has not responded to multiple requests for comment about Pompeo’s travel. A spokesperson referred a Times reporter to Pompeo’s online schedule, which does not mention The Villages stop.
But emails and itineraries from the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office and Wildwood Police Department that week show Pompeo’s motorcade left the fairgrounds and headed to a “second venue" — about 20 miles away.
“We have two sites: Sumter County Fairgrounds, and an office building in Wildwood,” a special agent with the Diplomatic Security Service wrote in a pre-dawn email the morning Pompeo landed in Florida. “Upon wheels down we will go directly to the fairgrounds, then to the office building, and then back to the airport.”
After the Times story published online, an ABC reporter traveling with Pompeo that day Tweeted that the secretary’s motorcade “mysteriously split” from the vehicle transporting reporters after his fairgrounds speech. No one knew where he was headed.
According to an operational plan for the VIP visit, the motorcade halted in a parking lot on the 3600 block of Kiessel Road in Brownwood Paddock Square, the newest of the three town centers that anchor each of The Villages communities.
On that same block is the mailing address for The Villages Operating Company, the company that runs the retirement community, according to state business records.
Federal campaign finance records show it is also the address listed for political contributions from Mark Morse. Morse is the president of the operating company and the head of the family that developed The Villages from pasture into a sprawling and lively retirement metropolis branded as “America’s Friendliest Hometown.”
The Villages were prolific Republican donors under its founder Gary Morse, the family patriarch. The family’s political giving, especially to federal campaigns, slowed briefly after his death in 2014, but lately it has reemerged in GOP circles.
Mark Morse has donated more than $100,000 to federal campaigns and political committees since January 2019. Most of it went to Republican efforts to win back the U.S. House of Representatives. Other family members and employees for the Villages have contributed $393,000 this campaign cycle, more than half of it to President Donald Trump’s re-election.
A woman who answered the phone in Morse’s office last week said she had no idea if he met with Pompeo on Jan. 23 and referred a Times reporter to the vice president of community relations for The Villages, Gary Lester. He didn’t respond to several emails sent to an address provided by Morse’s office or a message left with his receptionist.
Donald Sherman, the deputy director of the watchdog nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and Washington, said if Pompeo came to The Villages on a personal political mission, he should not be allowed to use state department resources. Sherman’s organization had previously raised concerns about Pompeo’s travel habits.
“At what point is there enough smoke for an agency to determine that a person is a candidate,” Sherman said. “Pompeo is repeatedly exploiting this loophole while he’s gallivanting around the country using taxpayer money to either explore a candidacy or to bolster his impending candidacy.”
Pompeo’s office repeatedly declined to explain the purpose for his time in Bushnell, which capped five days of travel through Germany, Colombia, Costa Rica and Jamaica. He briefly met earlier in the day with Gov. Ron DeSantis in Miami to discuss Venezuela policy before heading north to Sumter County.
Adding to the mystery of his official itinerary is that there was little remarkable about his speech at the Sumter County Fairgrounds — which touched on Trump’s worldview, China and the killing of Iranian military leader Qassem Soleimani — except perhaps for its campaign-like tone. His comments were well-received by the 400 Trump supporters that reportedly attended.
“We’re going to have a lot of fun," Pompeo began his remarks as the audience chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A." Later he asked the crowd, “Is anybody tired of winning yet?" echoing a familiar line from Trump’s rallies.
Sumter County’s local newspaper, The Daily Commercial, reported that “Pompeo never made clear why he made the visit to Bushnell.” The speech lasted 17 minutes and then he was off to his secret meeting in The Villages.
“That’s super weird,” Sherman said. “He has no real business going there, and it seems like he’s making up a reason that is tangentially related to state department business.”
In all, Pompeo spent just a few hours in Central Florida before taking off from Ocala International Airport. Less than a day later he was back in Washington, where he then clashed with an NPR reporter in a well-publicized incident over his role in the Ukraine controversy.
It’s no secret that Florida is the largest battleground state. Trump and his top surrogates are frequent visitors. Just days before Pompeo’s Central Florida appearance, Vice President Mike Pence held a rally in a New Tampa church and another for Latino voters in Kissimmee.
But Pompeo had previously assured USA Today that his busy domestic schedule was “not political or in any way intended to help bolster Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.”
Last year, Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called for an investigation into Pompeo’s travel and whether it violated laws preventing political activity by White House officials.
On at least three occasions in 2019, Pompeo traveled on official business to Kansas that some characterized as “a de facto campaign effort” for the U.S. Senate, Menendez wrote in an October letter to the Office of Special Counsel.
In one such trip, Pompeo met with students at Wichita State University, attended a workforce development round table and visited an aviation company. He has also conversed with major donors on these returns to Kansas, including the billionaire Charles Koch, and at times has restricted media availability to local Kansas news outlets.
His frequent sojourns back to his home state provoked the Kansas City Star’s editorial board to urge Pompeo to “stop hanging out here every chance he gets.” The deadline for him to make a decision on the Kansas race is June.
“Mike Pompeo, either quit and run for U.S. Senate in Kansas," a headline on the Star editorial declared, "or focus on your day job.”