Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had achieved the seemingly impossible in Donald Trump’s Washington — pleasing the mercurial president while casting himself as a defender of his institution.
But that wiliness has reached its limits. Pompeo is now facing fire over accusations he ducked from standing up for the US ambassador to Ukraine, whose sacking is a key part of the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry into Trump.
The unusually open criticism by seasoned diplomats comes amid growing expectations that Pompeo will soon exit to run for Senate in his home state of Kansas — where his frequent travel has also come under scrutiny.
Michael McKinley, a four-time ambassador tapped by Pompeo to accompany him around the world as his link to the Foreign Service, resigned in October after the White House put out a conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump — who is accused of pressuring Zelensky to investigate the family of domestic rival Joe Biden — in the call denounced the ousted ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, telling the Ukrainian leader that “the woman” was “bad news.”
McKinley quit with a courteous letter saluting the Foreign Service, but a transcript released Monday of his deposition to House investigators revealed he had unsuccessfully asked Pompeo to back the veteran ambassador.
“Since I began my career in 1982, I have served my country and every president loyally,” McKinley said.
“Under current circumstances, however, I could no longer look the other way as colleagues are denied the professional support and respect they deserve from us all.”
McKinley said he asked Pompeo to issue a statement defending Yovanovitch’s “professionalism and courage.”
“He listened. That was it. Sort of, ‘Thank you,’” McKinley said.
McKinley said he was later told “it would be better to let this die down” rather than draw “undue attention” to Yovanovitch.
In her own deposition, Yovanovitch said a senior official called her at 1.00 am and told her to take the first flight home, citing vague security concerns, after a campaign against her spearheaded by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.
Returning to Washington, she did not see Pompeo but testified that Phil Reeker, the top diplomat for Europe, told her “that the secretary had tried to protect me but was no longer able to do that.”
– ‘Derelict in duty’? –
McKinley nonetheless credited Pompeo with improving the atmosphere at the State Department after the “devastating impact on morale” under his predecessor Rex Tillerson, a former oil executive who made cost-cutting his top priority.
But Bill Burns, a decorated former ambassador generally known for his mild manner, called Pompeo “derelict in his duty” for allowing the “demagogue” Trump to advance an agenda in Ukraine that circumvented diplomats.
In a 33-year career, “I’ve never seen an attack on diplomacy as damaging, to both the State Department as an institution and our international influence, as the one now underway,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs in October.
Pompeo, rarely bashful, hit back in an ABC News interview, saying Burns “is clearly looking for a spot in the next administration.”
After faithfully executing Trump’s often shoot-from-the-hip diplomacy, Pompeo has also started to emulate the president’s seeing-enemies-everywhere rhetorical style.
Speaking to Fox News, Pompeo mused that former president Barack Obama may have blocked military aid to Ukraine because of Biden’s son Hunter, whose lucrative position on the board of a Ukrainian energy company has been seized upon by Trump.
The Obama administration said it did not give arms so as not to inflame the conflict with Russian-backed separatists, a decision reversed by Trump who signed off on but then controversially delayed lethal aid.
– Out of key picture –
Pompeo remains one of the few officials not to cross Trump in public but he has also appeared, curiously, to be on the sidelines.
Vice President Mike Pence took the lead in negotiating with Turkey to end its incursion into Syria, with Pompeo standing behind him.
Pompeo was also not in a photo proudly released by Trump of the raid that killed the Islamic State group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, instead attending the wedding of his son’s friend in Kansas.
Pompeo’s visits to Kansas, including a trip with Trump’s daughter Ivanka to highlight job creation, have come under attack by Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, who said Pompeo may be violating a law that bars official travel for partisan purposes.
In one of his many interviews with Kansas media, Pompeo called the New Jersey senator a coastal elitist who “can’t understand how someone would want to go to (an) amazing place like Kansas” — a turn of phrase that would not sound out of place in a campaign.