State Department officials strongly supported $141 million in department funds that Congress appropriated this year for Ukraine — in addition to $250 million in aid from the Defense Department. But there is no indication that Pompeo objected when Trump withheld all of the assistance while Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani — and the president himself — pressed the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son.
Most worrisome to the department is concern that Pompeo did not intervene to protect U.S. diplomats either enlisted by Giuliani to assist his efforts or punished for being insufficiently committed to the cause, according to more than a dozen current and former officials, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
Trump, according to Giuliani, ordered that career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch be fired as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and she was removed from her post in May. In his July 25 call with Zelensky, Trump described her as “bad” and ominously warned that “she’s going to go through some things.”
Yovanovitch and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, were accused by Giuliani and conservative media figures of trying to protect the Bidens from an investigation by Ukrainian prosectors and working at the behest of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist. The Open Society Foundation that Soros underwrites has been one of the funders of anti-corruption and transparency causes in Ukraine, along with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy.
Officials in the department say accusations against Yovanovitch were baseless and in late March began suggesting ways the State Department could defend her. In internal documents turned over to Congress by the State Department inspector general last week, Kent warned in an email to colleagues that Yovanovitch had become the target of a “classic disinformation operation.”
One of the conspiracy theories pushed by Giuliani and a columnist for the news outlet the Hill was that Yovanovitch provided a “do not prosecute list” to Ukrainian officials to protect Biden and others. “One key sign of it being fake is that most of the names are misspelled in English — we would never spell most that way,” Kent said in one email to colleagues.
Kent suggested that the State Department should push back by “circling in red all the misspellings and grammar mistakes and reposting it,” as the U.S. Embassy in Moscow had done in similar counterpropaganda campaigns. “If we wanted to push back hard(er), we could consider a similar approach,” he said.
Kent’s concerns about the smear campaign were sent to the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, Philip Reeker, and later forwarded to the No. 3 official at the department, David Hale, and State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a close confidant of Pompeo.
On March 31, Reeker emailed Brechbuhl a breakdown of Kent’s concerns about the conspiracy theory against Yovanovitch, saying that “it’s a good summary of the story lines being peddled.” Yovanovitch is due to testify before investigating committees on Capitol Hill later this week. Brechbuhl and Kent, as well as Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, are also expected to provide depositions. An expected appearance by Kent on Monday was canceled.
Diplomats who worked closely with Yovanovitch say the State Department and Pompeo did far too little to protect her.
“All of us felt like she was incredibly shabbily treated,” said a senior Western diplomat. “My understanding is that Pompeo was quite well briefed and took a passive role when the removal of Masha Yovanovitch happened. He couldn’t have been ignorant of the subject matter or the interests at play.”
State Department press officials declined to comment.
Some officials insist Pompeo tried to shield Yovanovitch. As White House criticism of her rose in the spring, Pompeo “was trying to save her from what could have happened — the tweeting, and it could have gotten really bad,” said a U.S. official familiar with the matter.
“So many in the building — in the bureaus — resent what is this targeting of a career person,” this official said. “But it’s so sad that no one can tell them all that was going on to prevent a much worse outcome: a humiliating public thrashing.”
Several officials closely familiar with Ukraine policymaking defended Pompeo as caught between the demands of a persistent president and a deeply skeptical Foreign Service.
“He’s not the main protagonist in this at all. He really isn’t,” one official said. “He’s not been personally invested in it. He’s been helpful on policy, but he’s got a whole world to cover.”
This official and others said that Pompeo had been fully supportive of aid to Ukraine and a Washington summit with Trump that Zelensky so eagerly sought.
“I never heard a word of it internally,” the official said of efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, who Trump has alleged intervened when he was vice president to protect his son from a corruption investigation in Ukraine. Ukraine had closed an investigation on the energy company on whose board Hunter Biden served with no finding of wrongdoing.
Chris Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend, said, “I don’t think Mike Pompeo should be held responsible for Rudy’s activities.”
The secretary, one person familiar with events said, was frustrated with Giuliani’s actions and was not privy to many of his conversations with Trump. Pompeo listened in on the July call between Trump and Zelensky, this person said, because he was nervous about what Trump might say.
Others are far from certain about Pompeo’s role. State Department officials were buoyed by Pompeo when he arrived at the department 18 months ago promising to restore their “swagger” after the tenure of the doleful and isolated Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary. Now many agree with one anxious official who said that keeping up with the newest text messages and press accounts has become exhausting. “I just want the soap opera to end,” the official said.
With little information forthcoming from Pompeo’s seventh-floor department enclave, many diplomats have been left wondering whether their standard-bearer was an active participant in Giuliani’s and the president’s pressure and conspiracy theories, or pushed back when he could, or simply surrendered control over the nation’s diplomacy to Trump’s political interests.
Several people with direct knowledge of events said Pompeo was regularly informed by State Department diplomats of Giuliani’s activities regarding Ukraine.
Giuliani, who pressed the interests of Trump — “my client” — throughout the spring and summer in meetings and messages with diplomats and Ukrainian officials, offered a two-edged assessment of Pompeo in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday, saying that the secretary knew everything but was a disappointment who did little.
After Giuliani said he provided the State Department with information about the perceived lack of loyalty by some department officials, he said: “I was told by the secretary they were going to investigate it internally. . . . I believed I had found someone who was going to look into this.” But Trump, he said, had to demand “three times” that Pompeo fire Yovanovitch. “The State Department was undercutting it,” Giuliani said. “They were protecting her.”
Some said the secretary tried to block Giuliani’s efforts, or at least “was happy” that his diplomats “were trying to contain and fix it,” according to a person close to Kurt Volker, the administration’s special envoy to Ukraine who resigned a week ago. Volker spoke to investigating lawmakers behind closed doors Thursday.
Pompeo, this person said, “was very much concerned about Giuliani’s narrative and activities.”
Rather than complicity in an attempted shakedown of Ukraine, according to this person and others, Pompeo and his diplomats were trying to facilitate a compromise that would satisfy the demands of the president and his attorney, while promoting a U.S.-Ukraine relationship that would meet the important foreign policy needs of both.
State Department officials were involved in negotiations with the Ukrainians to draft an official statement promising they would investigate corruption cases sought by the Trump administration, according to administration officials.
The most comprehensively public statement of Pompeo’s views came on a European trip last week, when he spoke to journalists in Athens on Saturday. Everything the State Department had done regarding Ukraine, he said, was in the interests of the American people and “at the direction of the president.”
Among the open questions about Pompeo’s role is his reaction to the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky that is the center of a House impeachment inquiry. After initially brushing aside questions, saying he had not had time to read a whistleblower complaint that revealed the content of the call and a White House-released rough transcript, Pompeo acknowledged last week that he had been on the call himself. “To the best of my knowledge,” he told reporters, actions by the State Department in aid of Trump’s goals “were entirely appropriate.”
In his opening statement to the investigating committees, Volker said that he informed Pompeo, as well as the National Security Council and the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that he had warned Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials to avoid involvement in “anything that could play into the U.S. elections in 2020.”
In text messages turned over by Volker to lawmakers, diplomats involved in Ukraine policy — including Volker, Sondland and William B. “Bill” Taylor, a retired diplomat recalled to replace Yovanovitch in Kiev — rarely mention Pompeo or the State Department.
Pompeo is referenced only twice, once when Sondland notes the secretary is about to have a meeting with Trump. In the second mention, Taylor objected to pressure on Zelensky to investigate Biden.
“If you still have concerns, I recommend you give Lisa Kenna or S a call to discuss them directly,” Sondland responded.
“S,” in the State Department, refers to the secretary. Kenna is Pompeo’s executive secretary.
Carol Morello contributed to this report.