If it wasn’t clear that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is President Donald Trump’s lapdog, his actions around the Ukraine scandal have left no doubt.
He feigned ignorance about the president’s call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and later admitted he was on the call after press reports exposed him. He used to be all for Congressional oversight of the State Department when he was in the House and now says questions about the administration’s conduct toward the European nation amounts to “bullying.” And instead of standing by the ambassador to Ukraine, he let the president recall her seemingly for personal reasons.
It would be astounding if it weren’t so predictable. Time and time again, Pompeo has gone out of his way to defend and protect the president. As CIA director, he publicly distorted intelligence to favor his boss. As America’s top diplomat, he’s continued to defend Trump’s most questionable actions and overseen a highly politicized State Department.
It’s gotten to the point that some of Pompeo’s own employees are fed up. “I’ve run out of words to appropriately convey how horrified, dispirited, and disgusted we all are,” a State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, told me. “We have tens of thousands of people who work for State, most of whom aren’t even Americans, who show more loyalty to the US than that guy. He dishonors us all.”
Not everyone is so upset, though; many say the State Department runs more smoothly now than when Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, headed the organization.
Still, many State Department officials see Pompeo more as the secretary of Trump than the secretary of state.
“Defending State is Item No. 2 for Pompeo,” a former senior State Department official who served in the Trump administration told me. “Defending the president is No. 1.”
How Pompeo tries to stay clear of the Ukraine scandal and defends Trump
At least three times now, Pompeo has behaved questionably in order to downplay the Ukraine scandal or try to protect the president from its fallout.
First, Pompeo evaded questions about Trump’s conversations with Zelensky. Second, he tried to obstruct a House Democrat-led probe into the administration’s dealings with the Eastern European country. Third, he failed to protect Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine, when Trump wanted her recalled for not kowtowing to him.
Let’s start with the phone call part: After reports that a whistleblower’s complaint alleged Trump leaned on Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden during a July 25 phone call, questions began to swirl about who else listened in on the conversation.
Pompeo’s name came up immediately — after all, he’s America’s top diplomat. That’s surely why ABC News’ Martha Raddatz questioned Pompeo about it on September 22. “What do you know about those conversations?” she asked, leading the secretary to reply: “So, you just gave me a report about a IC whistleblower complaint, none of which I’ve seen.”
Note carefully what Pompeo did here: he never denied knowing anything about Trump and Zelensky’s communications. Rather, he deflected to say that he hadn’t seen what the whistleblower wrote down.
That would be a good move if he didn’t know about Trump-Zelensky conversations at all, but it turns out that wasn’t the case. The Wall Street Journal reported on September 30 that Pompeo actually had listened in to the Zelensky call all along, exposing the secretary of state after more than a week of obfuscation.
He finally came clean when asked about the reports during a visit with Italy’s foreign minister on Wednesday. “I was on the phone call,” he said, though he refused to make any additional comments on whether the call was appropriate or not.
It makes sense that Pompeo would personally want to stay far away from the situation embroiling Trump in an impeachment crisis and leading to the resignation of one senior State Department official. But he surely also did so in part not to divulge what he knew about the Zelensky call.
That’s not all Pompeo is up to. House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats, executing their oversight role, have requested interviews with State Department officials and documents related to US-Ukraine relations under Trump. The secretary, however, fiercely pushed back against such efforts in an October 1 tweet.
In a letter he wrote to committee chair Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) — a copy of which he included in the tweet — Pompeo questioned the Democrats’ authority to compel depositions. “The requested records constitute the property of the Department of State and are subject to restrictions on the unauthorized disclosure of classified information and various Executive Branch privileges,” he wrote.
I’m concerned with aspects of the Committee’s request that can be understood only as an attempt to intimidate, bully, & treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State, including several career FSOs. pic.twitter.com/QRtMaXlhQM
— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) October 1, 2019
That’s extremely rich coming from Pompeo. As a conservative firebrand in the House during the Obama administration, Pompeo was heavily involved in investigating then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in the Benghazi tragedy. He also continuously blasted the Obama administration for not handing over information fast enough.
“The White House in particular left large holes in the investigation by denying the Committee access to documents and witnesses — often hiding behind vague notions of ‘important and longstanding institutional interests of the Executive Branch,’” he wrote in his additional comments to the Republicans’ Benghazi report in June 2012.
Which goes to show that Pompeo is happy to criticize process only when it most benefits him and the president.
Finally, Ambassador Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine in May — two months before she was scheduled to end her assignment. While it’s still unclear exactly why she came back to Washington, the whistleblower alleged it’s because she doesn’t subscribe to Trump’s belief that the work of Hunter Biden — Joe’s son — on the board of a Ukrainian gas company should be investigated.
On his call with Zelensky, according to a White House-released call summary, Trump said that “she’s going to go through some things.”
Usually a secretary of state gets involved before something like this happens and stands up for the most senior members in his employ. But not Pompeo.
“Morale at State is not good, and that was before Yovanovitch. So I can’t imagine it’s any better now,” said the former senior State official.
“He’s not defending State,” the official continued. “If he were, he would’ve pushed back on this. But he mostly sees his job as being on the right side of the president. He’ll defend the institution up to the point that he may cross Trump.”
And it’s not just on Ukraine-related issues that Pompeo behaves this way. It’s been clear since Pompeo’s first days in the administration that this is how he operates.
Pompeo survives by staying on Trump’s good side
In October 2017, then-CIA Director Pompeo took the stage at a prominent Washington think tank and promptly told a lie. NBC News’ Vivian Salama asked him: “Can you say, with absolute certainty, that the election results were not skewed as a result of Russian interference?”
“Yes,” Pompeo responded. “The intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.”
The problem was that the assessment Pompeo referred to — which represented the collective judgment of the FBI, the National Security Agency, and the CIA — actually said something very different: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
So why did Pompeo do this? To avoid angering Trump and stay in his good graces. That code has helped him outlast most other top administration officials, like former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, to become the most powerful person in Trump’s Cabinet.
“Pompeo and Trump have a good personal relationship,” a State Department official told me last month. “I don’t really see much daylight between them.”
Even the president agrees. “I argue with everyone,” Trump told New York magazine in a 2018 interview. “Except Pompeo. I don’t think I’ve had an argument with Pompeo.”
That’s by design. Pompeo makes a point to bring up any policy disagreements directly and privately with the president. Pompeo is known as a staunch Iran hawk, for example, who has expressed desires for regime change. Trump, however, doesn’t want war with Tehran. It’s very likely that they’ve tussled on that issue behind closed doors. But once Trump chooses a course of action, it appears the secretary backs off.
And it makes sense for Pompeo to be deferential. He has political ambitions of his own and could use Trump’s help when the time comes. Plus, Trump despises anyone who disagrees with him openly, and it’s the secretary of state’s job to clearly articulate US foreign policy to a domestic and global audience. Pompeo defends his behavior in this way, saying it’s his duty to both inform but also defend Trump’s actions.
“I work hard for the president of the United States, who was constitutionally elected. He is my leader. My task is to share with him the best information,” Pompeo said during an August interview on CBS’s This Morning.
But as the Ukraine episode highlights, Pompeo purposefully does whatever he can to stay close to his leader — and not necessarily to do his job as he’s supposed to. “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass,” a former US ambassador told the New Yorker in August.