Was the secretary of state caught in a lie? Or is he just artfully answering questions — or, more to the point, not answering questions?
This is a story of spin. See if you can keep track of the bouncing ball.
Michael McKinley was the U.S. ambassador to Brazil when Pompeo asked him to leave his post early in 2018 to act as his senior adviser and liaison to the Foreign Service. McKinley abruptly resigned in October after the controversy over the administration’s dealings with Ukraine erupted, in protest of what he told lawmakers was the use of ambassadors to advance domestic political objectives and a failure by the State Department to support those officials.
In an Oct. 20 appearance on ABC, Pompeo had a long exchange with George Stephanopoulos about McKinley’s departure. Stephanopoulos asked about McKinley’s failed efforts in September to get a statement of support issued by the department about Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine.
The Trump administration had removed her from her post early, after complaints by President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani. When the White House released the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump was quoted as saying Yovanovitch was “bad news.”
It was a stunning statement by a president about a career diplomat, which is why McKinley thought the department should issue a statement of support.
But Pompeo chose not to answer Stephanopoulos’s question about the statement of support. Instead, he answered a question that was not asked — whether McKinley had raised with Pompeo the decision to remove Yovanovitch early from her post. We highlighted the key sections.
POMPEO: So, Mike McKinley served me well for a year and a half. I chose him. I had people tell me he was a great Foreign Service officer and in fact, he served America wonderfully for 37 years. He in fact had the office that was just — just behind mine, had a door that he could walk in any time and say whatever he wanted. You know, from the time that Ambassador Yovanovitch departed Ukraine until the time that he came to tell me that he was departing, I never heard him say a single thing about his concerns with respect to the decision that was made —
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you were never asked —
POMPEO: Not — not — not once — not once, George, did Ambassador McKinley say something to me during that entire time period.
Stephanopoulos then tried again to ask about the statement of support, and this time Pompeo refused to answer, disingenuously suggesting it would stifle frank opinions. (In this case, Pompeo was simply being asked to confirm what his former adviser has already disclosed.)
POMPEO: George, again, I’m not going to talk about private conversations that I had with my most trusted advisers. I think it’s most appropriate that trusted advisers keep these conversations precisely where they are. Imagine if it becomes commonplace that a secretary of state would talk about things that his closest advisers said to him. I think you would agree, George, that that advice would change. People would be reluctant to speak. It wouldn’t be appropriate. I don’t intend to do that.
But Pompeo’s efforts to avoid talking about the statement of support may have backfired on him by the time the House Intelligence Committee released the transcript of McKinley’s interview. Pompeo’s statement that “not once, George, did Ambassador McKinley say something to me during that entire time period” was interpreted as talking about the statement of support — not the decision to oust Yovanovitch.
“Ex-Pompeo adviser contradicts former boss in impeachment inquiry testimony,” CNN headlined its article on Wednesday.
In the congressional deposition, McKinley related that he tried hard to get the State Department to issue a statement of support after the release of the transcript with Trump’s criticism. He said he probably raised it directly with Pompeo three times — that was “the matter” he was asked about. He described three conversations, saying that each time Pompeo simply refused to respond.
“He listened,” McKinley said, recounting one conversation. “That was it. Sort of, ‘Thank you.’ That was the limit of the conversation.” He said he could not even get a sense that Pompeo was supportive of the idea of a statement.
McKinley did get more enthusiastic support from other career officials, but the idea withered on the vine without high-level backing, by his account, and so he resigned. He said Pompeo also provided no reaction when he mentioned that as a reason for resigning.
“On that subject, he did not respond at all, again,” McKinley testified.
Nevertheless, McKinley acknowledged that he was not directly involved in Ukraine policy and says he only knew about it from what he read in the media. “I never spoke about her recall with anyone in the Department,” he said.
He added that he did not know why she was recalled. “So I can sit here and speculate, but it would be speculation. I saw nothing in writing,” he said. “I heard nothing. I heard no Department official speaking about the reasons for her recall.”
So McKinley confirmed the point that Pompeo had said in the ABC interview — that McKinley had not raised the ambassador’s ouster. But given that McKinley was not involved in Ukraine policy, there’s little reason for him to do so. But he was involved in Pompeo’s relations with the Foreign Service, which is why raising the statement of support was an important issue for McKinley.
During a stopover in Germany on Thursday, Pompeo was asked again by a State Department correspondent about why he failed to back the statement of support. The reporter carefully noted that Pompeo already had said McKinley had not questioned Yovanovitch’s ouster. Nevertheless, Pompeo deflected by again ignoring the actual question and instead talking about the ambassador’s recall in May. We have highlighted the key sections below.
QUESTION: Mr. Pompeo, Secretary Pompeo, you have said that Ambassador McKinley did not make known to you his objections over the recalling of Ambassador Yovanovitch, but he has testified that three times he directly appealed to you to make a statement in her support. You did not. Why not?
POMPEO: And as for Ambassador McKinley, I clearly follow this a lot less than you do. I haven’t had a chance — it’s a pretty busy world out there — haven’t had a chance to follow this, but with respect to Ambassador McKinley, I think he said at the opening statement that he put out that he wasn’t particularly involved in the Ukraine file, so it’s not surprising that when Ambassador Yovanovitch returned to the United States, that he didn’t raise that issue with me. That’s —
QUESTION: You’re saying he didn’t raise the issue at all?
POMPEO: It shouldn’t surprise anyone that in May when that took place, he didn’t say a thing to me.
SPOKESWOMAN: Okay, thanks. Next.
The State Department declined to provide The Fact Checker with the answer to the question that Pompeo has been avoiding.
The Bottom Line
Perhaps Pompeo thinks he’s being clever here, repeatedly pretending to answer a different question. The issue is not whether McKinley raised Yovanovitch’s recall — which he had no reason to do, given his position — but whether he discussed a statement of support for her with Pompeo. By his account, he brought it up three times, each time earning only silence from Pompeo.
Pompeo, who is under fire for refusing to publicly support career Foreign Service officers, clearly does not want to explain why he refused to back a statement of support for a career ambassador. But sometimes you can’t spin yourself out of tricky political situations.
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