It wasn’t political extortion — Donald Trump was actually trying to help Ukraine fight corruption, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday of the July phone call at the center of the U.S. president’s ongoing impeachment scandal.
Speaking on stage at an event in Athens, Pompeo placed the call in the context of normal relations between countries, in which each tries to advance its own national interests. He said nations routinely tell each other, “If you can help me with X, we’ll help you achieve Y.”
In this case, Pompeo said, the U.S. position was not linked to Trump’s personal political agenda but to the U.S. national interest in making sure Ukraine was not corrupt before selling missile systems to Kyiv.
Pompeo, a close ally of Trump, is now also caught up in the impeachment inquiry being conducted by the U.S. Congress into whether the president pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and potentially withheld aid to Ukraine in an effort to force the Kyiv government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.
Pompeo’s remarks Saturday came during an event organized by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. embassy in Greece at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center in Athens.
Pompeo has battled with lawmakers in Washington who issued a subpoena to force him and the State Department to turn over documents related to the investigation, which is focused on the July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy for “a favor” and urged him to work with his personal lawyer to investigate the Bidens.
The secretary of state told a press conference earlier Saturday that his department had on Friday sent an initial written reply to the document request from Congress. Democratic aides said Friday that Pompeo had not complied with the subpoena but State Department officials had reached out to the three relevant committees about the issue.
During the on-stage interview in Athens, organized as part of the two-day visit, Pompeo insisted Trump had done nothing wrong and reprimanded journalists for probing his role in the July 25 phone call, saying reporters should focus on “things that matter to people.”
Pompeo told his interviewer, the Greek journalist Nektaria Stamouli, that he did not think the audience was interested in the impeachment inquiry.
“I think they want to know about the relationship with America and Greece,” said Pompeo. “This is what’s wrong. When the world doesn’t focus on the things that are right, the things that matter,” he continued, adding: “You see that’s not healthy. That doesn’t help democracies flourish. It doesn’t help grow economies.”
Pompeo — who has acknowledged he was listening in on the call between Trump and Zelensky — said there was nothing untoward about it.
He said Trump “has every right” to have conversations as he sees fit.
“Look, I was on the phone call,” he said. “I’m on almost every phone call with the president with every world leader.”
“We know exactly what we were doing there. We were trying to create a situation where it wouldn’t be a corrupt government,” Pompeo said. “We wanted to make sure that they didn’t interfere in our election in 2016. We wanted to make sure that if we underwrote Javelin missile systems — something that the previous administration refused to do — we wanted to make sure that we were doing this with a government that was straight-up, and would use that money for the things that it said it would use that money for.”
He said such conversations were a normal part of diplomacy, with nations pressing other nations in the hope of advancing their own interests. Such exchanges took place between the U.S. and Greece and between Washington and other allies, Pompeo said.
“This is what we do. We work together in a political environment to achieve what the Greek people want … And America tries to advance its interests around the world,” he said.
“It’s totally appropriate. Right? Isn’t that right?” Pompeo asked. “Yeah, it’s totally right.”
“Nations do this,” Pompeo said. “Nations work together and they say, ‘Boy, goodness gracious, if you can help me with X, we’ll help you achieve Y.’ This is what partnerships do. It’s win-win, it’s better for each of us.”