Congressional frustration with the perceived failure by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to defend State Department personnel from political attacks spilled over during a “heated” private meeting last weekend in Munich.

A bipartisan delegation of senators and congressmen met with Pompeo last Saturday at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof on the sideline of the Munich Security Conference. The meeting became contentious early on, when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) confronted Pompeo about what the senator described as a severe morale problem among Foreign Service officers and civil servants working for the State Department both in Washington and around the world.

Pompeo reacted angrily. The secretary didn’t just deny that he had failed to protect his employees sufficiently; he also claimed that morale at the State Department is great, according to four lawmakers who were in the room.

“It got heated with regard to State Department morale,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told me.

Whitehouse told Pompeo that as a son, grandson, nephew and cousin of Foreign Service officers, he thinks those in the Foreign Service are being treated badly and hears that morale among the officers is very low.

“[Pompeo] snapped and said, ‘That’s absolutely wrong. It’s not true,’ ” Menendez recalled.

The secretary claimed that Foreign Service officers routinely claim that morale in the department is high. He also claimed that there are more Foreign Service officers now than ever before. (That claim is disputed by the American Foreign Service Association, which reports the number of Foreign Service officers is the lowest in years and is falling quickly.)

Whitehouse, according to the lawmakers, stood his ground as Pompeo got visibly upset. “I’ve made my point,” Whitehouse said. “You certainly have,” Pompeo replied.

Whitehouse said he also expressed his displeasure at a loss of leadership support for career Foreign Service officers and a lack of courage in defending department officials from political abuse.

“And the secretary rejected the notion that any of that was true,” Whitehouse said.

Asked to comment, a State Department spokesperson sent me the following statement: “Secretary Pompeo has made it a top priority to promote and defend State Department personnel. When Members of Congress make accusations that are simply untrue about members of his team not performing well, Secretary Pompeo is going to correct the record.”

The meeting continued in the same combative vein. Pompeo gave curt responses to questions from other members on other topics. There were a lot of important issues on the agenda in Munich. The Trump administration was expected to announce a peace deal with the Taliban (which has now been delayed). Pompeo and lawmakers were trying to coordinate a strategy to convince European allies to reject Chinese telecom technology. (The allies were not convinced.)

After a few more uncomfortable exchanges during the meeting between Pompeo and lawmakers, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) returned the conversation to the issue of State Department personnel. Though saying he wanted to back up what Whitehouse said, he struck a more conciliatory tone.

Foreign Service and State Department career officials are being attacked by people who accuse them of being part of the “deep state” or being disloyal, he told Pompeo. Malinowski didn’t mention that the worst attacks are coming from Pompeo’s boss, President Trump, even to this day.

“I know these attacks are not coming from you, but what all of us count on you to do is to defend your people and your institution from these kinds of attacks,” Malinowski told Pompeo. “Every Foreign Service officer I know is trying their best to implement President Trump’s foreign policy and they need a leader to defend them.”

Pompeo then calmed down, saying that he wanted to address the issue afresh and offering amends to Whitehouse. Pompeo insisted that he has been defending his people from the start of his term in office, and that doing so is important to him. He believes, he said, that most Foreign Service officers are patriotic and nonpartisan, but couldn’t resist adding there may be a few who really should leave because they just hate Trump.

None of the lawmakers mentioned the State Department official who has borne the most egregious attacks from Trump and his fellow deep-state conspiracy theorists — Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Trump has tweeted awful things about her, including blaming her for the situation in Somalia.

Yovanovitch was recalled early from her post after becoming the victim of a smear campaign organized by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. Pompeo famously blew up at an NPR reporter after being asked last month why he has never publicly defended Yovanovitch.

“I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team,” he told the reporter, Mary Louise Kelly, before inviting her back to a private room to yell at her.

The impeachment record shows that Pompeo likely did try to protect Yovanovitch for several months before yielding to Trump’s pressure to recall her. But Whitehouse told me that’s just not good enough.

“If one of your career people is taking a public shot from the president of the United States and you go and stick your head down a well and say, ‘That was a terrible thing,’ but nobody hears it, what they see is a failure to respond, to stick up for them,” he said.

Pompeo, like most Trump officials, is caught between doing the right thing and remaining loyal to the president. That’s understandable. But lawmakers, journalists and others will continue to point out the State Department he’s running has real personnel and morale problems — even if he doesn’t want to hear it.

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