MADISON, Wis. -- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Wednesday that China was attempting to influence state and local governments, including through seemingly innocuous sister-city agreements, delivering the message in the presidential battleground state of Wisconsin.
"Telling the truth about China isn't partisan," Pompeo said to an audience of Republican lawmakers and guests who were spread out across the Wisconsin Senate chamber. "It's principled. And it protects our people."
Pompeo's visit to the Wisconsin Capitol less than six weeks before the election was a first for a secretary of state. His stop came after Attorney General William Barr was in Milwaukee on Tuesday and Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to be in Eau Claire today.
Wisconsin is a battleground state that President Donald Trump won by fewer than 23,000 votes in 2016. Polls show a tight race again this year and both the president and Democrat challenger Joe Biden, as well as their surrogates, have made campaigning in Wisconsin a priority.
Trump, Pompeo and other officials have blamed China for the spread of the coronavirus, and have imposed sanctions against Chinese officials over human rights and other issues, including Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan.
In addition to penalties levied against individual Chinese, the administration ordered the Chinese Consulate in Houston to close -- drawing a similar action from China -- earlier this year after accusing it of being a nest of Chinese spies engaged in industrial espionage and intellectual-property theft.
Pompeo warned that sister-city programs, including in Wisconsin, fall under a program that's part of the Chinese government's "overseas propaganda." He called it "not so friendly to American interests."
Pompeo also cautioned lawmakers that when approached by a Chinese diplomat, "it is likely not in the spirit of true cooperation or friendship." He urged lawmakers to investigate who is paying for any trip to China they may be offered once covid-19 travel restrictions are lifted.
He said that Democrats and Republicans together "have a friend in the Trump administration" to help push back against China's efforts.
Pompeo was there at the invitation of Republican Senate President Roger Roth, who had spoken with Pompeo about a request he received from Chinese officials earlier this year to pass a resolution praising the Chinese government for its response to the coronavirus.
Pompeo said Roth was right to delete the email and treat it as a hoax. Pompeo cited it as part of a wide-ranging public relations campaign by Chinese officials. He said that what happened to Roth was happening in statehouses across the country. Pompeo said the Chinese government has a "much more sinister vision of engagement" than other foreign governments, with the goal of making Americans more receptive to its form of authoritarianism.
After his address, Pompeo took questions from Roth that had been submitted in advance by Republican state lawmakers.
Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Lee of The Associated Press.