Pompeo defended the substance of the conversation but sidestepped the key concern: that Trump demanded Ukraine investigate one of his 2020 political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The call “was about helping the Ukrainians to get graft out and corruption outside of their government,” Pompeo said while in Rome. “It’s what the State Department officials that I’ve had the privilege to lead have been engaged in, and it’s what we will continue to do, even while all this noise is going on.”
Pompeo’s handling of the Ukraine controversy is made more complicated by the role of Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who has repeatedly insisted that the State Department, including the secretary, was aware of his activities and even had requested them.
Away from the cameras, Pompeo has gone beyond casual dismissals of the “noise.”
Earlier this week, he sent a letter to House committees slamming their effort to obtain testimonies from State Department officials linked to the Ukraine controversy. Pompeo even published the letter on his Twitter feed.
He couched his letter as a defense of civil and foreign service officers who work for the State Department, accusing lawmakers of trying to bully them into fast depositions. But lawmakers, as well as many U.S. diplomats, saw it another way: as Pompeo trying to scare his staff into silence.
Three Democratic House committee chairmen on Tuesday took the unusual step of sending a response not to Pompeo, but to his deputy, John Sullivan.
They warned that his boss could face criminal penalties if he tried to impede the impeachment investigation. They also wrote that because Pompeo listened in on the July 25 call, he has a conflict of interest and could be “a fact witness in the impeachment inquiry.”
New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, went further, demanding that Pompeo recuse himself from all Ukraine-related matters, including those affecting the impeachment inquiry, as well as regular foreign policy.
“The American people need to have confidence that the nation’s chief diplomat is making decisions based on the national interest — not to advance a partisan political agenda,” Menendez wrote. “Recusal is the only option at this point to prevent further erosion of the integrity of U.S. foreign policy.”
Later Wednesday, Menendez questioned whether Pompeo may have spread misinformation within the State Department about his own employees who have been caught up in the impeachment inquiry. Menendez’s comments came after the department’s inspector general, in a hastily scheduled briefing, gave Congress documents tarring those employees that had come into his possession.
The State Department did not respond to requests for comment, but Trump on Wednesday defended his top diplomat. The president described Pompeo as “the most honorable person,” and said that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), one of the lead investigators in the impeachment inquiry, wasn’t fit to carry Pompeo’s “blank strap.”
Other people who know Pompeo or have been tracking his career expressed a sense of astonishment — and schadenfreude — at how quickly his situation has changed.
Just over three weeks ago, Pompeo could barely contain his glee as news came down that Trump was booting Bolton, a fierce internal rival who clashed with the secretary as they sought to win the president’s ear.
The two men shared many hawkish views, but approached their boss in sharply different ways. Bolton made it known in public and private that he vigorously opposed Trump’s talks with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, as well as his overtures to Iran and the Taliban. Pompeo is willing to disagree in private with Trump, but publicly shows no daylight. He also avoids criticizing the president when just with his staff, according to people who know him.
Bolton’s departure suddenly gave Pompeo singular influence on foreign policy. Trump briefly considered naming Pompeo national security adviser on top of secretary of State. The president ultimately named a top Pompeo aide, hostage negotiator Robert O’Brien, to lead the National Security Council — a decision likely to enhance Pompeo’s influence, at least in the short term.
He has also benefited from a vacuum across the river at the Pentagon: For months following the resignation of Jim Mattis, who had reportedly stymied some of the president’s more aggressive orders, the administration had no permanent Defense secretary. Only recently did the Senate confirm the low-profile former Army Secretary Mark Esper, who was a classmate of Pompeo’s at West Point.
Pompeo’s troubles on Capitol Hill come after a summer in which the secretary repeatedly and coyly stoked media interest in his future political ambitions, meeting with major Republican donors and influential conservative groups, booking speeches in Kansas and on local radio stations, and joking privately about his presidential aspirations.
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has been openly urging Pompeo to run for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Roberts, fearing that immigration hard-liner and Trump favorite Kris Kobach will alienate swing voters.
There’s no sign that the Ukraine scandal has damaged Pompeo’s standing among Republicans. Flaunting one’s closeness to Trump remains a winning strategy in most GOP primaries, but Pompeo’s embrace of an unpopular president could become a talking point for a future Democratic opponent.
“Precisely because he is close to Trump is why he’s in trouble,” said Thomas Wright, a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. “He will compromise his beliefs and principles to remain close to Trump. It’s politically advantageous, but it’s also very risky.”
Many of Pompeo’s critics say he’s experiencing karmic justice.
When he was a Republican congressman from Kansas, he relentlessly hounded the Obama administration and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.
At the time, Pompeo accused the Obama administration of obstructing congressional efforts to find out what truly happened in Benghazi. Now, Democrats point to his Benghazi-obsessed past to argue that he’s the one obstructing a congressional inquiry.
“It’s true he’s getting his comeuppance, but I don’t want to create an equivalence,” said Jeffrey Prescott, a former national security aide in the Obama administration. “There is a crucial difference with Benghazi, which is that Pompeo’s conduct goes to the heart of a clear abuse of power by the president and those around him.”
Pompeo is known to be very intense in private during times of stress, even yelling at staffers. His outward demeanor can be prickly, too — he often chides reporters for questions he doesn’t like.
Pompeo’s allies explain his approach to Trump as the product of his military training. As a West Point graduate, he has an Army sensibility, seeing the president as the commander in chief whose decisions ultimately must be obeyed. “He’ll say, ‘He’s the one who won the office, not me,’” a person who has worked with Pompeo said.
The person added, however: “He’s far more shrewd than people give him credit for. He’s smart, but also shrewd. He has an excellent memory. You tell him something once and he’s like, ‘Yep, got it, got it.’”
Trump has praised Pompeo’s credentials — he noted on Wednesday, for instance, that his secretary of State graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the law review.
Pompeo’s reputed intelligence is one reason why lawmakers have a difficult time believing he didn’t realize how disturbing the contents of Trump’s call with Zelensky would be, and why they are unlikely to stop demanding answers from him anytime soon.
His reputation in Foggy Bottom is probably the worst it’s been since he left his post as CIA director to take over the State Department in April 2018.
Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson, who was widely reviled in Foggy Bottom over his unwillingness to consult with department experts, among other complaints. Pompeo took several steps to ease the anger at State, including lifting a hiring freeze and promising to give U.S. diplomats what he called “swagger.”
His actions on the Ukraine issue, however, have alarmed many of those diplomats. For one thing, he abruptly withdrew early the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, a veteran foreign service officer.
Yovanovitch had been under attack by conservative figures over specious allegations that she’d tried to block prosecutors and had expressed anti-Trump bias. Trump called her “bad news” in the July 25 call.
Pompeo might have been trying to protect her by pulling her out of Kyiv, but he’s never publicly defended her, and her case has infuriated the diplomatic community. Now, Yovanovitch is one of the State Department officials House investigators want to depose; her session is scheduled for Oct. 11.
Pompeo appears well aware of the backlash. In an interview with Sky TG24 while he was in Italy, he offered a softer tone when asked about whether he was trying to bully U.S. diplomats.
“We have, at the State Department, a very clear obligation to try and cooperate with our parliamentary, our congressional colleagues,” Pompeo said. “I will do that. The State Department will do that.”