Secretary of State Mike Pompeo apparently didn’t get that memo.
Pompeo implied Tuesday that there is legitimacy to President Trump’s conspiracy theory about alleged Ukraine interference in the 2016 election — despite the intelligence community, in which he previously served as a leader, having debunked it.
At a news conference, Pompeo was asked about Trump’s belief that it might have been Ukraine rather than Russia that hacked the Democrats, and he responded that such issues were worth looking into. Here’s the exchange (key parts bolded):
Q: Do you believe that the U.S. and Ukraine should investigate the theory that it was Ukraine and not Russia that hacked the DNC emails in 2016?POMPEO: Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right but a duty to make sure we chase that down. And I served as the CIA director for the first year and a half of this administration; I can assure you there were many countries that were actively engaged in trying to undermine American democracy, our rule of law, the fundamental understandings we have here in the United States. … To protect out elections, America should leave no stone unturned. So whatever nation it is that we have information that so much suggests that there might have been interference — or an effort to interfered in our elections — we have an obligation to make sure that the American people get to go to the ballot box and cast their ballot in a way that is unimpacted by these malevolent actors trying to undermine our Western democratic values.
The response echoed what Pompeo said last month when asked a similar question. “Inquiries with respect to that are completely important,” he said. “I think everyone recognizes that governments have an obligation — indeed, a duty — to ensure that elections happen with integrity, without interference from any government, whether that’s the Ukrainian government or any other.”
The thing to remember here is that the idea of Ukrainian “interference” is two-pronged. On the one hand are actions that certain Ukrainians took that could be construed as trying to benefit Hillary Clinton, such as sharing Paul Manafort’s “black ledger.” On the other hand, though, is the baseless and dubious conspiracy theory that Trump has pushed Ukraine to investigate. That conspiracy theory holds that Ukraine did the hacking for which the U.S. intelligence community has explicitly and repeatedly blamed Russia.
In her testimony last week, Hill acknowledged pro-Clinton efforts existed in Ukraine and other countries. And she recognized that this was problematic. “They bet on the wrong horse,” she said. “They bet on Hillary Clinton winning the election.”
But she made a point to separate that from what Russia did, which was a systematic and state-sponsored effort to spread misinformation and hack the Democrats. The idea that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that hacked the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign is a far bigger allegation than the idea that certain Ukrainians tried to affect the election.
And it’s a theory that has been debunked by the intelligence community, where Pompeo notes he served as CIA director for the first year of the Trump presidency. If anyone had access to evidence on this, it would seem to be Pompeo. And Pompeo even testified to Congress in May 2017 that Russia was responsible for the hacks.
This is a conspiracy theory that gives even Trump supporters heartburn. Many of them have sought to argue that Ukraine interfered in certain ways but have steered clear of vouching for the conspiracy theory about hacking. Former White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert recently tried to dissuade Trump and his administration from going down this route.
“The DNC server and that conspiracy theory has got to go,” Bossert said on ABC News in September. “If he continues to focus on that white whale, it’s going to bring him down.”
Pompeo seems to be trying to offer a general statement and leaning on evidence that Ukraine took certain actions that could be construed as interference. But the question was about the specific conspiracy theory Trump has been pushing, and Pompeo’s response lumps it in with things for which there is actual evidence. He also did so even as Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) was recanting his own suggestion that it might have been Ukraine rather than Russia.
Pompeo could certainly be clearer about which aspects of alleged Ukrainian interference he thinks are legitimate. His remarks suggest he thinks the idea that Ukraine hacked the Democrats falls in that category. Leaving that as an open question may keep his boss happy, but it also aids the same Russia disinformation campaign that Hill warned about.