WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly dodged questions about his involvement in the phone call between President Trump and Ukraine’s leader that prompted the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
But he’s never quite denied it, and it turns out there’s a reason for that: Pompeo and his department are up to their eyeballs in Trump’s Ukraine scandal.
Not only was Pompeo himself on the call, high-level State Department officials had spent months working out how to get Ukraine to formally announce investigations that might prove politically helpful to Trump, according to new text messages released by House investigators Friday.
The texts paint a damning picture of State Department officials attempting to swap a meeting with the president for politically-helpful investigations. And according to one top diplomat, Pompeo was read in all along.
That pushes Pompeo to the center of Trump’s Ukraine scandal, underscoring just how far his department went to support Trump’s push to undermine his 2020 rivals. And it raises fresh questions about the independence of yet another major government institution at a time when top officials appear increasingly preoccupied with Trump’s personal whims.
“Pompeo has defined his role as being more of a political counselor to the president than a traditional diplomat,” said Jeremy Suri, an expert on diplomatic history at the University of Texas in Austin. “Now, we’re seeing that blow up in his face.”
The messages released on Friday show three top U.S. diplomats actively discussing how to nudge Ukraine into announcing politically advantageous investigations. They even dangled a meeting with Trump in the White House before the Ukrainian president as a possible reward for his help.
And they did this while showing varying degrees of awareness of just how improper it would be to drag Ukraine into meddling with the U.S. election.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and the meeting [in the White House] are conditioned on investigations?” the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, texted the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland on September 1.
Sondland wrote back: “Call me.”
Taylor went on to argue that the U.S. shouldn’t link the investigations to U.S. aid to Ukraine, which was temporarily held by the Trump administration during the discussions about investigations.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote on September 9. That would be a “nightmare scenario,” he wrote.
Democrats have demanded to know whether Trump withheld congressionally approved aid to Ukraine as a means to pressure Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenksy into digging up dirt on a political rival, a key question in the impeachment inquiry now threatening to consume Trump’s presidency.
But Zelensky also desperately wanted an Oval Office meeting with Trump as a symbolic gesture of American support to strengthen his hand against Russia, according to experts on Ukrainian politics.
“Zelensky was hoping for a summit with Trump from the moment he was elected president,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, a Ukrainian political analyst and Director at the New Europe Center think tank in Kyiv.
The texts show the American diplomats dangling that meeting while seeking a Ukrainian promise to launch investigations.
“Heard from White House – assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, wrote to Ukrainian presidential advisor Andrey Yermak on July 25, the very day Trump pressed the Ukrainian president to “look into” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Volker testified under oath to Congress on Thursday that he was in regular contact with Pompeo while these conversations were going on.
On Sept 22, the day Pompeo first publicly dismissed the idea of his involvement in the Ukraine situation, Volker says he got a call from Pompeo.
Pompeo told Volker that Trump’s lawyer, Giuliani, wanted the State Department to confirm Volker had arranged a meeting between Giuliani and Yermak.
“I told the Secretary that the State Department Spokesperson had already confirmed this, in a statement given to the press,” Volker testified. “Secretary Pompeo asked me to call Mr. Giuliani back, tell him this, and share a copy of that statement. I did so.”
‘I WAS ON THE CALL’
The Ukraine scandal threatens to tarnish Pompeo’s image as one of Trump’s most capable lieutenants — a man who somehow managed to navigate Trump’s erratic demands and tweet-storms even while other high-ranking officials around him dropped like flies.
Not only has Pompeo allowed his department to be drawn directly into the president’s Ukrainian imbroglio, he also failed failed to protect one of his own diplomats, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, from being fired earlier this spring, in yet another key moment Democrats will pursue in their impeachment inquiry.
The Ukraine affair looks likely to leave a lasting stain on Pompeo’s legacy, said Robert Deitz, who held top roles in the CIA and NSA during the George W. Bush administration.
“In the past, you looked at secretaries of state with admiration, and a sense that you were dealing with a distinguished figure who had the country’s interest in mind and would never, never sully his office,” Deitz said. “Anybody who touches Trump inevitably ends up sullying himself.”
Cover: President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walk off after a news conference at the InterContinental Barclay New York hotel during the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)