Whatever hope Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had of staying in the background of the House Democratic impeachment inquiry evaporated under the heat of Ambassador William Taylor’s damning deposition. House Democrats are now redoubling their efforts at pulling Pompeo deeper into an impeachment inquiry the secretary has met with defiance.
Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, told legislators on Tuesday that Pompeo loomed large in what Taylor described as an “irregular” effort to make assistance to Ukraine contingent on the young Volodomyr Zelensky government’s willingness to investigate Trump’s domestic political rivals.
In a letter to Congress earlier this month, Pompeo said he would hold on to relevant communications and materials in order to protect career diplomats and officials in his department. Now, though, congressional staffers tell The Daily Beast they are again attempting to gain access to key evidence and say Pompeo’s reasoning for withholding is shallow. Those staffers pointed to the State Department’s history of mistreating officials for their perceived disloyalty to the Trump administration.
“Pompeo is not just a yes man to the president, he is a hell-yes man,” said Thomas Countryman, who retired from State in January 2017 after a three-decade diplomatic career. “It’s been especially disappointing that as he is asked hard questions, he adopts the Trumpian style of refusing to engage in substance and going into ad hominem attacks. It reminds me of the old RCA ads: ‘His Master’s Voice.’”
Pressure is mounting against Pompeo following Taylor’s testimony Tuesday and in anticipation of Saturday’s appearance by the department’s acting assistant secretary at the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs, Phil Reeker. Two sources close to the impeachment inquiry said they expect Reeker to supply additional information about Pompeo’s role in Rudy Giuliani's shadow diplomatic effort to convince Ukraine to dig up dirt on 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden.
"Obviously, [Pompeo] is central to this series of events. I think it would be very useful to hear from him to establish all the necessary facts in the case,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) told The Daily Beast. “It's hard to imagine he would be completely candid, since he's smack in the middle of this in a very, very serious way.”
Even before Taylor’s deposition, Pompeo’s involvement in the scandal was known. Pompeo was on the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, the one where Trump asked for a “favor” – enabling investigations of his political rivals – after Zelensky mentioned his desire for more American anti-tank missiles for use against Russian-sponsored separatists. That call enabled an effort quarterbacked by Rudy Giuliani and aided by State appointees—something Pompeo suggested to ABC’s Martha Raddatz in September was unfamiliar to him.
Soon afterward, Pompeo took an obstructionist position toward the inquiry. He refused to turn over documents or permit department officials to talk with House investigators, on grounds of protecting his employees from congressional “bullying.” It hasn’t worked. Along with two key figures in the pressure campaign – special envoy Kurt Volker and ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland—former Ukraine ambassador Maria Yovanovich, and longtime diplomat and Pompeo adviser Michael McKinley, Taylor became the fifth State Department official to talk—and the first to make Pompeo a central figure.
Taylor stated that he told Pompeo, who recruited him to helm the embassy in Kyiv, that he would only accept the ambassadorship if Pompeo supported him against what he called “a web of political machinations in Kyiv and in Washington” to undermine U.S. policy supporting Kyiv against Moscow. Those machinations had detonated Yovanovitch’s like-minded ambassadorship. Pompeo, Taylor said, gave Taylor his desired assurances – meaning that Pompeo knew about the shadow effort as early as that May 28 conversation.
When Taylor arrived in Ukraine in June, he said, he found little evidence of such support from the secretary. Giuliani, Volker, and Sondland seemed to be in charge of the policy, and they were pushing to get Zelensky to publicly commit to investigating the origins of Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia probe and a firm on whose board Joe Biden’s son sat.
“[Pompeo] recognized Giuliani as doing something that was inconsistent with the State Department’s policy,” said one former State Department official. “Clearly, he was not in a position to stop it.”
By July 18, Taylor learned that the White House had frozen security aid to Ukraine “for no reason I could discern.”
Taylor, as text messages previously released this month made clear, considered all that a disaster undermining the anti-corruption policy he thought he was enforcing. On advice from then-National Security Adviser John Bolton, Taylor said he wrote an Aug. 29 cable—a formal State Department document—to Pompeo “describing the ‘folly’” he “could not and would not defend.” He told Congress he received “no specific response.”
State Department spokespeople did not respond to questions about what happened to the Aug. 29 cable. Nor did they identify any disputes they had with Taylor’s characterizations of events. Shortly after Taylor’s deposition, a statement from White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham railed against “radical unelected bureaucrats.” The State Department did not issue any statement defending Taylor, something that stunned Countryman and other diplomatic veterans.
Countryman said: “I think that if Mr. Pompeo ever absorbed any of the leadership lessons I know West Point teaches”—Pompeo, like Taylor, is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy—“he has long forgotten them.”
On Wednesday, the congressmen and women leading the impeachment probe wrote Pompeo deputy John Sullivan to reiterate their demand for “specific documents in the possession, custody or control” of Foggy Bottom, including documents described to them by recent witnesses. The material sought includes “diplomatic cables,” likely a reference to the Aug. 29 cable Taylor disclosed sending Pompeo, as well as texts, emails, and “memoranda that document efforts to press Ukraine to initiate politically-motivated investigations to benefit President Trump.”
Such memoranda, the Democrats’ letter claimed, “raise concerns about false representations by the Department to the Committees” and “document efforts to intimidate or silence employees.”
Some of those records may see the light of day due to a transparency lawsuit entirely separate from the congressional impeachment inquiry. A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the State Department to disclose within 30 days documents about the Ukraine effort, including those concerning Giuliani’s involvement and Yovanovitch’s firing.
—with additional reporting by Sam Brodey