In October 2019, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife, Susan, started a six-day European trip that included stops in Italy, the Vatican City, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Greece. Pompeo scored a private meeting with Pope Francis, swapped handshakes with a half-dozen presidents and prime ministers, and he also ate a thin-crust pizza that may or may not have been topped with secrets.
Earlier this week, NBC News politics reporter Josh Lederman tweeted that he’d been looking through "heavily redacted State Department emails" that he obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. "Among the items the government redacted, citing privacy: Mike Pompeo's preferred pizza toppings," he wrote. But what, exactly, was on that highly classified pizza? I attempted to find out.
In a screenshot of that email, the sender and the recipient appear to be discussing the Pompeos' meals in Italy. "For the informal dinner on October 1, would S/SJP be interested in pizza cooked on Villa Taverna's pizza oven?" it reads. "ALSO—Mrs. Eisenberg can give wine tour/tasting in the Villa's catacombs if interested."
Villa Taverna is a circa-15th century Roman home that was built above a system of Etruscan era-tunnels and early-Christian catacombs. It has a lush garden, a priceless collection of art and antiquities, and a heavily fortified gate, because it's also the official residence of the U.S. Ambassador to Italy. When Mike and Susan landed in Rome, they were welcomed by then-Ambassador Lewis Eisenberg; presumably, the Mrs. Eisenberg who served as the catacombs' unofficial concierge was his wife, Judith.
In the FOIA-ed email about Villa Taverna's informal pizza dinner, Susan Pompeo seems to have responded by listing her husband's preferred toppings. "Assume it's the thin crust wood fired pizza and are you asking for what kind of pizza we'd like?" she wrote. "Mike likes—" and that's as far as we get: the predicate of that sentence is covered with a series of (b)(6) exemptions.
According to FOIA.gov, there are nine different kinds of exemptions for FOIA requests, which gives government agencies the right to redact information for reasons that range from national security to trade secrets to info that would be protected under attorney-client privilege. (There's also an entire category that prevents the disclosure of "geological information on wells.")
The (b)(6) privacy exemption does pretty much what it says: it exempts personnel and medical files from being disclosed, as well as any similar info that would "constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy." John Verdi, the Vice President of Policy at the Future of Privacy Forum, told VICE that these redactions and withholdings are made by agency FOIA officers who decide whether or not any info in FOIA-requested documents is covered by one of the nine exemptions.
"Someone determined that the redacted language regarding pizza toppings is personal, in the sense that it related to a single individual, that there is a legitimate privacy interest in the redacted info, and that the privacy equities outweighed the public interest," he said, of Pompeo's mysterious pizza. "The first conclusion strikes me as unsurprising. I find the second conclusion odd but plausible. If the second conclusion is correct, then the third conclusion is almost certainly right."
Verdi explained that he was "skeptical" that the exemptions would be upheld if they were challenged in court. "But it is hard to know without seeing the underlying text," he said. "If the unredacted text revealed that Sec. Pompeo were lactose intolerant and preferred cheese-free pizza, I think a court would uphold the redaction; health information is a core (b)(6) exemption. What if the redacted text indicated that Sec. Pompeo is vegetarian? I think that is a closer call, but a court might well uphold it."
Or maybe Mike Pompeo would prefer it if we didn't know that he pours a full can of corn onto his pizza. Or that he needs the pepperoni to be arranged in a way that makes the pizza look like it's repenting. Or that he wants one half to be topped with pineapple, and the other to contain a single human tooth. WHO'S TO SAY????
In an attempt to determine what the fuck is up with this, I spent the better part of the day scrolling through both of Mike Pompeo's Twitter accounts and both of his Instagram accounts. I cannot in good faith recommend this, unless you need to see dozens of photos of the former Secretary of State standing tight-lipped beside assorted world leaders, a Gun Stance, and one truly horrendous deployment of the hashtag #swagger.
I did learn that Pompeo is not a vegetarian—or if he is, he's the kind of vegetarian who really likes meatballs. Last summer, he 'grammed a picture of himself making "[his] dad's favorite meatballs" and he even found a way to mention meatballs during his Senate confirmation hearing. "When I was a teenager, I was given the 'Employee of the Month' award twice in my job at the local Baskin-Robbins ice cream store," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I’m a movie buff and admit to a soft spot for my golden retrievers. My family says my Italian meatballs, my Dad’s recipe, are the best."
But wait, there's more! During the Pompeos' October 2019 trip to Italy, they also made their way to L'Aquila, the central Italian city where Mike's great-grandparents lived before emigrating to the United States. According to La Cucina Italiana, the couple had lunch at Taverna de Li Caldora where they enjoyed "Abruzzo's gastronomic specialties."
While Susan ordered pappardelle with porcini mushrooms, Mike had sagne ricce con guanciale e ricotta di pecora as his main course. (Sagne is a traditional handmade pasta common in the Abruzzo region, guanciale is pork cheek, and ricotta di pecora is a sheep's milk cheese.) The Pompeos split a pizza dolce Abruzzese—a triple-layer sponge cake—for dessert. None of that suggests that Mike is a lactose-sensitive vegetarian.
It would sound like a bonkers suggestion during any other timeline—or about a member of any other presidential administration—but could it be possible that Pompeo's pizza toppings were redacted because of #Pizzagate? If you're capable of out-thinking a ficus tree, you might've forgotten that the worst parts of the Internet magicked up a connection between a few WikiLeaks-released emails from John Podesta, then Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, and a Satanic child pornography-slash-trafficking ring that was supposedly being run out of the basement of a Washington, D.C. pizzeria.
One of the hacked emails that "proved" this situation to 4chan users and other conspiracy-minded extremists involved the words "cheese pizza," which they interpreted as a reference to kiddie porn. (How? Because "cheese pizza" and "child pornography" could both be abbreviated using the letters "c" and "p".) Other 4channers expanded the list of food-related code words, which included a suggestion that "sauce" actually meant "orgy."
I know, it sounds ridiculous to even think that the FOIA office redacted an otherwise straightforward reference to the former Secretary of State's preferred pizza because they didn't want it to be in any way connected to a still-circulating (but debunked-to-death) theory about ravenous Democrats who, like, top their own pies with discarded infants they bought on an evil version of Etsy. BUT it's also ridiculous to think that info was (b)(6)-ed because Pompeo doesn't like pepperoni or whatever.
Mike, just tell us what was on the pizza, and we promise not to give you shit when you mention those goddamn meatballs again.