After the Pompeo report, though? Nothing. No “fake news!!” tweet from Trump; nothing from Grisham suggesting that the Journal was bent on Trump’s destruction. And, sure enough, on Wednesday, Pompeo admitted his participation on the call.
When the Journal story broke, it came as a surprise. A complaint filed by an intelligence community whistleblower mentioned that they’d been told that a senior State Department staff member was on the call, but not Pompeo himself. So when Pompeo was asked about the call after it became public knowledge, he knew something no one else did: He was privy to it in real time.
That was not information he revealed when asked about the issue. Instead, he offered a master class in misleading the public without technically saying anything untrue.
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sept. 22 — before the White House had released a rough transcript of the call — host Martha Raddatz raised the issue of the whistleblower complaint and the call with Pompeo.
“The Wall Street Journal is reporting that President Trump pressed the president of Ukraine eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani to investigate Joe Biden’s son,” Raddatz said. “What do you know about those conversations?”
The honest answer is that Pompeo knew a lot, having been on the phone. That’s not what Pompeo said.
“So, you just gave me a report about a I.C. whistleblower complaint, none of which I’ve seen,” Pompeo replied. That appears to be true: He hadn’t yet seen the complaint. But, of course, he didn’t need to have seen the complaint to say what he knew about the conversations.
“I can tell you about this administration’s policies with Ukraine,” Pompeo pivoted. He transitioned to disparaging how the administration of Barack Obama handled Ukraine.
“We’ll see President Zelensky this week,” he concluded. “We want a good relationship with the Ukrainian people.”
“You say you know nothing about this, but let me ask you this question,” Raddatz pressed. “The Ukrainian presidential readout of the conversation said they discussed — quote — ‘investigation of corruption cases which inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA.’ The president tweeted Saturday: ‘It was a perfectly fine and respectful conversation.’ Do you think it’s — quote — ‘perfectly fine’ to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent?”
“I think I saw a statement from the Ukrainian foreign minister yesterday, said there was no pressure applied in the course of the conversation,” Pompeo said. Again: He knows what happened on the call but relies on a statement from Ukraine to bolster his point. (That statement, incidentally, should be taken with a grain of salt.)
Pompeo then pivoted again, this time to insinuate improper behavior by former vice president Joe Biden.
“If the conversation was perfectly fine, as President Trump said,” Raddatz continued, “why not release the transcript or a portion to the public?”
“The White House will have to explain,” Pompeo said, this time putting it on his boss to deal with questions about what happened. “We don’t release transcripts very often. It’s the rare case. Those are private conversations between world leaders. And it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so, except in the most extreme circumstances.”
Then, for the first time, he said something that would specifically suggest that he was as unaware of what happened on the call as anyone.
“There’s no evidence that that would be appropriate here at this point,” he said.
Raddatz, of course, didn’t know to press Pompeo because there was no reason to assume that he was on the call. Pompeo knew that he was, and he carefully avoided volunteering that information. The interview ended.
Pompeo was also asked about the Ukraine situation on Sept. 26, after the rough transcript and the whistleblower complaint had been released.
“Mr. Giuliani has said that the State Department instructed him to get involved with Ukraine, to reach out to President Zelensky and his aides. Is that correct?” a reporter asked. “And if so, what exactly was he told to do by the State Department, by whom? And just more broadly, the whistleblower complaint does not appear to suggest any allegation of impropriety from people in the State Department. Is that correct? Are you confident that none of your staff — that you or none or your staff did anything improper in this whole situation?”
The problem here is obvious at the outset. During press availabilities, each reporter has a lot of questions they would like to have answered but generally get only one opportunity to ask anything. So there’s a temptation to ask a lot of things, assuming, perhaps, that the official being questioned will walk through each one. Instead, officials tend to pick out the one they most want to answer.
Which is what Pompeo did here.
“I haven’t had a chance to actually read the whistleblower complaint yet,” Pompeo said, replying only to the question about what the complaint itself suggested. “I read the first couple of paragraphs and then got busy today. But I’ll ultimately get a chance to see it. If I understand it right, it’s from someone who had secondhand knowledge.”
If only someone with firsthand knowledge of the call were available to answer the reporter’s question!
“Here’s what I’ll say this morning about the engagement of the State Department,” he continued. “To the best of my knowledge, so from what I’ve seen so far, each of the actions that were undertaken by State Department officials was entirely appropriate and consistent with the objective that we’ve had certainly since this new government has come into office.” He continued on, praising his department and outlining broad foreign policy goals.
Note that bit of self-exoneration: “each of the actions that were undertaken by State Department officials was entirely appropriate.”
Pompeo probably wasn’t actually giving a little wink to his own role, but, seeing the comment now, it certainly could be read that way.