Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered a tortured response Thursday to questions about the sworn impeachment testimony of his former senior adviser Michael McKinley, who told investigators last month that he approached Pompeo three times about the need to defend the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

At a news conference in Germany, Pompeo denied discussing the issue with McKinley in May, after Marie Yovanovitch had been recalled from her posting in Kyiv, but evaded the fact that McKinley’s testimony referenced conversations between him and Pompeo in September. Pompeo has faced criticism about his decision not to defend Yovanovitch ever since details of her removal became public in her impeachment testimony last month.

“When Ambassador Yovanovitch returned to the U.S., he didn’t raise that issue with me,” Pompeo said Thursday. He added that because McKinley’s focus wasn’t Ukraine “it shouldn’t surprise anyone that in May when that took place, he didn’t say a thing to me.”

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McKinley testified that in September, after the administration released a rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he pushed for the State Department to defend Yovanovitch by issuing a statement of support for the embattled ambassador. The transcript showed that Trump had disparaged Yovanovitch during the call, calling her “bad news.”

McKinley said in his testimony that he wanted a statement to underscore Yovanovitch’s “professionalism and courage.” Pompeo decided against it, McKinley told impeachment investigators, saying he did not want to “draw undue attention to her.”

McKinley described the lack of a State Department response as “puzzling and baffling” because he had confirmed with Yovanovitch that she would “welcome” a statement of support, according to his testimony.

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McKinley abruptly resigned from the administration in October.

Yovanovitch became the target of a smear campaign orchestrated by the president’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who circulated unsubstantiated allegations that she was disloyal to Trump and allied with former vice president Joe Biden.

Yovanovitch denied those allegations in a sworn deposition and said she had been told by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan that she was being recalled because the president lost faith in her, even though Sullivan said he was not aware of her doing anything wrong.

Scores of former national security officials have criticized the State Department’s decision not to defend Yovanovitch.

Last month, Pompeo told ABC News that McKinley never said a “single thing” about Yovanovitch to him. The transcript of McKinley’s deposition, in which McKinley said he raised the issue three times, was released by House Democrats last week.

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