WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump’s first CIA director, Mike Pompeo was briefed by agency officials on the extensive evidence — including U.S. intercepts of conversations between participants — showing that Russian hackers working for the government of Vladimir Putin had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. In May 2017, Pompeo testified in a Senate hearing that he stood by that conclusion.
Two and a half years later, Pompeo seems to have changed his mind. As Trump’s second secretary of state, he now supports an investigation into a discredited, partisan theory that Ukraine, not Russia, attacked the Democratic National Committee, which Trump wants to use to make the case that he was elected without Moscow’s help. “Inquiries with respect to that are completely important,” Pompeo said last month. “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.”
Pompeo’s spreading of a false narrative at the heart of the Ukraine scandal is the most striking example of how he has fallen off the tightrope he has traversed for the past 18 months: demonstrating loyalty to the president while insisting to others he was pursuing a traditional, conservative foreign policy. Pompeo, 55, now finds himself at the most perilous moment of his political life as veteran diplomats testify to Congress that Trump and his allies hijacked Ukraine policy for political gain — and as congressional investigators look into what Pompeo knew of the machinations of Trump and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer.
It was Pompeo who helped Trump and Giuliani oust the respected U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie L. Yovanovitch, in April. Both Michael McKinley, a senior adviser to. Pompeo and a four-time ambassador, and Philip T. Reeker, the acting assistant secretary for Europe, testified that they asked State Department leadership to defend Yovanovitch from false accusations, only to be rejected. McKinley said he personally urged Pompeo three times to issue a defense; the revelation of that detail in a transcript released on Monday undercut a declaration Pompeo made in an interview last month that he “never heard” McKinley “say a single thing” about Yovanovitch’s ouster.
Two weeks ago, Pompeo did not speak out on behalf of the war veteran he asked to fill Yovanovitch’s job, William B. Taylor Jr., after Trump attacked the diplomat over his blistering testimony on the president’s quid pro quo demands. In fact, Pompeo has tried to block officials under him from testifying.
At the same time, Pompeo is facing a revolt in the State Department. Confidence in his leadership has plummeted among career officials, who accuse him of abandoning veteran diplomats criticized by Trump and letting the president’s personal political agenda infect foreign policy.
Many diplomats now contend that Pompeo has done more damage to the 75,000-person agency than even his predecessor Rex Tillerson, an aloof oil executive reviled by department employees.
“In my view, and I say this with a great deal of reluctance as Secretary Pompeo tried at the start of his tenure to lift up the career service, he has failed the men and women of the department in his most important responsibility — to support them in the deepest crisis the service has faced in memory,” said Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s top career official under President George W. Bush and now a Harvard professor who advises Joe Biden’s presidential campaign.
Some State Department officials have resorted to back channels to voice their complaints, congressional aides said. Over the summer, as confidence in Pompeo eroded, a stream of career officials spoke quietly with congressional offices about their concerns over administration policy — on the hold on Ukraine military aid, a move to cut $4 billion of foreign aid and arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
On Oct. 23, the three congressional impeachment committees said Pompeo had overseen a “culture of harassment and impunity.” That echoed what Yovanovitch had told investigators: The State Department was being “attacked and hollowed out from within,” she said.
In interviews Oct. 30 with Fox News and The New York Post, two of Trump’s favorite media organizations, Pompeo pushed a new conspiracy theory involving Biden’s son and President Barack Obama’s policy of military aid to Ukraine — a theory that career officials under him find outlandish.
“Pompeo has consistently demonstrated that the only safe place on Trump’s foreign policy team is to be more Trumpian than the president himself,” said Andrew Weiss, a former official with the White House National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon in Democratic and Republican administrations. “Whether that means trafficking in over-the-top partisan attacks on Trump’s opponents or conspiracy-mongering about the 2016 election and the Ukraine scandal, he’s always willing to go there.”
“It seems that the only thing Pompeo is consistently prioritizing is his own personal political ambitions as opposed to what’s actually good for the country’s long-term national interests or the institutional well-being of the State Department,” added Weiss, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The recent wave of criticism has made Pompeo, known for a short fuse, even more testy in public. When a reporter asked Pompeo whether Trump’s abandonment of Kurdish partners in Syria had undercut U.S. credibility, he lashed out, saying, “The whole predicate of your question is insane.”
A battered diplomatic corps is finding some solace in the nomination by Trump and Pompeo last Thursday of their North Korea envoy, Stephen E. Biegun, as the deputy secretary of state. Biegun is a longtime national security professional who worked for Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administration.
Still, Pompeo’s problems are growing as his frequent trips to Kansas, his adopted home state, come under greater scrutiny.
Last Tuesday, Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked the U.S. Office of Special Counsel to look into whether Pompeo was violating the Hatch Act by traveling to Kansas four times this year, three on taxpayer-funded official trips. Many people speculate that Pompeo, a former Republican Tea Party congressman backed by the Koch family, plans to run for the Senate next year, and that the trips amount to a shadow campaign.
On Oct. 25, as Pompeo was on his most recent visit, made with Ivanka Trump, The Kansas City Star ran an editorial with the headline “Mike Pompeo, Either Quit and Run for U.S. Senate in Kansas or Focus on Your Day Job.”
“He should by all means focus on U.S. diplomacy — remember diplomacy? — and stop hanging out here every chance he gets,” it said.
But it is Pompeo’s murky role in the shadow Ukraine policy that is keeping him in the cross hairs. Congressional investigators have subpoenaed his old friend and former business partner, Ulrich T. Brechbuhl, the State Department’s counselor.
The State Department did not answer detailed questions submitted for this article. In a combative interview with ABC News on Oct. 20, Pompeo declined to discuss Ukraine. He addressed the issue of low morale in his department by saying, “I see motivated officers.”
The revelations on Ukraine have shown Pompeo had direct knowledge of Trump’s shadow policy, and seems to have enabled it.
In October, after the publication of news reports, Pompeo admitted he took part in the pivotal July telephone call between. Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine. That was the same call that prompted a CIA employee to file the whistleblower complaint that ignited the impeachment inquiry.
And in August, Pompeo received an urgent cable from Taylor, the chief of mission in Ukraine, saying it was “folly” to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine.
Though Taylor said that he heard Pompeo brought that Aug. 29 cable to the White House, Pompeo has refused to say what he advised. Some people familiar with the issue say he urged the president to resume military aid in September, fearful that the pressure on Ukrainian leaders for political favors would come back to bite the administration.
In April, Pompeo complied when Trump ordered Yovanovitch removed from her ambassador post, the result of a right-wing media campaign by Giuliani and his associates that asserted, without evidence, that the ambassador had disparaged Trump.
John J. Sullivan,. Pompeo’s deputy and Trump’s nominee for ambassador to Russia, conceded at a Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday that he knew Giuliani was among those trying to “smear” Yovanovitch, but said he was told by Pompeo only that the president “had lost confidence in her.”
Yovanovitch testified that Sullivan had told her that department leaders feared that if they did not remove her immediately from her post, Trump would humiliate her with a tweet.
For career officials, Yovanovitch, a three-time ambassador, is a rallying point. Multiple op-eds and open letters with scores of signatures from former officials have called on Pompeo to defend Yovanovitch and the other officials who are shedding light on policies.
The latest letter, with more than 400 signatures from mostly former employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said State Department colleagues were “under siege.” “We are angered at the treatment of dedicated, experienced and wise public servants like Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch,” it said.
McKinley told lawmakers Oct. 16 that he resigned recently because department leaders had failed to support diplomats caught up in the impeachment inquiry, and because of “the engagement of our missions to procure negative political information for domestic purposes,” according to a transcript of the testimony.
He said he believed the State Department was being used to dig up dirt on a political opponent of the president. “In 37 years in the Foreign Service and different parts of the globe and working on many controversial issues, working 10 years back in Washington, I had never seen that,” he said.
McKinley also spoke of low morale arising from the leadership’s inaction after the department’s inspector general released a report in August that detailed how two political appointees in the Bureau of International Organization Affairs — assistant secretary Kevin Moley and his senior adviser Marie Stull — had harassed career employees. The inspector general is finalizing a similar investigation into another appointee, Brian H. Hook, the special representative on Iran.
“Morale at the State Department is rock bottom, but spirits have been lifted by the courage of these patriots,” Wendy Sherman, the department’s third-ranking official under President Barack Obama, said of McKinley and others testifying.
While failing to back his veteran diplomats, Pompeo has taken to the airwaves to defend Giuliani.
Pompeo told CBS News on Sept. 22 that Giuliani’s request of Ukraine to investigate Biden was appropriate. “I think the American people deserve to know,” he said.
Giuliani said Pompeo had told him that he “was aware of” Giuliani’s efforts, and Giuliani passed a dossier of questionable documents on Ukraine to Pompeo. The State Department special representative for Ukraine, Kurt D. Volker, was involved in Giuliani’s interactions with Ukrainian officials.
Gordon D. Sondland, a Trump campaign donor and ambassador to the European Union who was a main player in the quid pro quo demands on Ukraine, told congressional investigators on Oct. 17 that Pompeo had endorsed his activities.
“I understand that all my actions involving Ukraine had the blessing of Secretary Pompeo as my work was consistent with long-standing U.S. foreign policy objectives,” he said. “Indeed, very recently, Secretary Pompeo sent me a congratulatory note that I was doing great work, and he encouraged me to keep banging away.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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