Washington is consumed with the Senate impeachment trial this week, but it should also find some time to reflect on a sorry episode from this past weekend: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s behavior with NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly. During an interview with Kelly in which he balked at discussing whether those State employees embroiled in the impeachment controversy—especially former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch—deserved an apology, Pompeo launched a profanity-laced tirade against the reporter for having the temerity to even ask such a question. He then issued an unbelievable statement the next day accusing Kelly of being a “liar.”
These actions undoubtedly played well to the audience in the White House, but they have done further, serious damage to the already battered morale in the State Department, and to U.S.-Ukraine relations, in tatters after the impeachment scandal. It wasn’t a great day in the United States for respect for the role of the press either.
Pompeo is scheduled to land in Kyiv this Thursday. He has canceled two previously scheduled visits—the first time because of the impeachment scandal, the second because of the crisis with Iran and attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. In light of his comments on Friday with Kelly, Pompeo should cancel again—and then he should resign as Secretary. To be sure, Secretaries are expected to support their Presidents, but Pompeo’s actions have taken that virtue well past the bounds established by his predecessors.
In the interview Friday, which started with questions about Iran, Kelly shifted to Ukraine and asked Pompeo whether he owed an apology to Yovanovitch, who was unfairly attacked by President Trump and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, among others, and removed last spring because of false allegations against her.
Pompeo refused to answer the specific question. “I’ve defended every single person on this team,” he said, responding in broad terms. “I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team.” That would be news to most of those involved.
An aide to Pompeo ended the interview abruptly, and then called Kelly into Pompeo’s inner office, where the Secretary ripped into her for asking him questions about Ukraine, even though Kelly had alerted Pompeo’s staff that she would be doing so. In his typically bullying treatment of reporters, especially female ones, Pompeo challenged Kelly to find Ukraine on a map—which she did—and asked, according to Kelly, “‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?’ He used the f-word in that sentence, and many others.”
On Saturday, the State Department issued an extraordinary statement in the Secretary’s name, far and away the most juvenile and embarrassing statement under a State Department label I have ever seen. In it, Pompeo attacked Kelly, claiming she lied, not once but twice, and violated their after-interview conversation as being off-the-record, though he does not deny what she reported he said. He concludes the statement in way that probably won points at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue but that is beneath the office of Secretary of State, writing, “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.”
Pompeo seems to be suggesting that Kelly, when challenged to find Ukraine on a map, mistakenly chose Bangladesh instead. Given her solid reputation, reporting experience, including from Russia, and her graduate degree in European studies, it beggars belief that Kelly pointed to a country far away on another continent.
Aside from attempting to bully journalists like Kelly, Pompeo has done an atrocious job of defending those who work at the State Department who have been ensnared in the impeachment controversy. When allegations surfaced earlier this month in media interviews with Giuliani associate Lev Parnas that Yovanovitch might have been surveilled by American citizens, Pompeo simply said in an interview with radio show host Hugh Hewitt that he had “never heard” of such reports.
In a separate interview with another radio show host Tony Katz that same day, Pompeo cast doubt on the allegations. “I suspect that much of what’s been reported will ultimately prove wrong,” an odd thing to say given that he previously claimed earlier that day to have never heard of the allegations.
He half-heartedly went on to state, without mentioning Yovanovitch by name, “but our obligation, my obligation as Secretary of State, is to make sure that we evaluate, investigate. Any time there is someone who posits that there may have been a risk to one of our officers, we’ll obviously do that.”
The Ukrainian government, by contrast, has shown more concern for the safety and welfare of Yovanovitch, a highly respected diplomat, than Pompeo has. Very soon after Parnas’s allegations surfaced, Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs announced that it was launching an investigation into the “possible unlawful surveillance on the territory of Ukraine of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Jovanovich,” mentioning her, unlike Pompeo, by name. “Ukraine cannot ignore such illegal activities on its territory,” the statement added.
Since last fall, Pompeo has refused to defend Yovanovitch and other State employees unfairly slammed by Trump, Giuliani, and others for appearing before the House committees responsible for the impeachment inquiry. Instead, Pompeo attempted to block their appearance and refused to turn over any subpoenaed material.
Pompeo said nothing about Trump’s comment in his infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelelnsky that Yovanovitch would “go through some things,” even though Pompeo listened in on that call. Michael McKinley, a top adviser to Pompeo, resigned after more than three decades of service to protest Pompeo’s “lack of public support for Department employees.”
Beyond damaging morale in the State Department by refusing to defend those who work there, Pompeo has fed discredited conspiracy theories that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As a former director of the CIA, Pompeo is in a position to know better than to call for an investigation into such discredited theories. In his attack on Kelly on Friday, Pompeo made it clear that he doesn’t care about Ukraine and irresponsibly suggested that Ukraine doesn’t matter to the United States. Why would Zelensky and other Ukrainians want Pompeo to visit Kyiv after this latest indignity?
When he was a member of Congress, Pompeo was an outspoken critic of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the Benghazi tragedy in 2012 that cost four Americans their lives. When pro-Iranian militias attacked the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad last month, Pompeo supported a strong response. He has demonstrated he can come to the defense of his staff in certain circumstances.
But when it comes to Trump’s political fortunes and the President’s attacks and intimidation of people connected to the Ukraine controversy, Pompeo is nowhere to be found. He is not the first Secretary to seek to stay in the good graces of his boss. Secretary Colin Powell bowed to President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and even made the case for it before the United Nations despite his own serious reservations about such a major move.
At the same time, Pompeo is arguably the most influential member of Trump’s national security team. James Baker may be the most recent Secretary of State with influence comparable to Pompeo’s, but Baker advanced weighty foreign policy objectives, including the Persian Gulf War, the reunification of Germany, and the collapse of the USSR.
Pompeo has handled some major foreign policy issues, too, including Iran and North Korea. But it is clear that Pompeo has decided that staying in Trump’s good graces politically is more important than doing the right thing, even when that undermines morale in his own building, plays into Russian disinformation efforts, damages U.S.-Ukrainian relations, and demeans the office he holds. On top of all that, Pompeo joins the ranks of those who demonize journalists who seek to do their job, holding officials accountable. Apparently Pompeo believes he is above accountability and a fan of freedom of the press only when journalists ask him softball or pre-cleared questions. I can’t think of a Secretary of State in recent memory with a worse relationship with the media.
I co-authored a piece in October in the Washington Post calling on Pompeo to resign. Since then, the need for his departure has only grown more urgent. Pompeo, however, has indicated he is staying on as Secretary, apparently forgoing at least for now, as many predicted, a run for the open U.S. Senate seat in Kansas. That is unfortunate for U.S.-Ukraine relations and for those who work at State. They deserve better.