Trump Impeachment Inquiry Puts State Department in the Crosshairs

U.S. diplomats are concerned they will become star witnesses.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as President Donald Trump holds a press conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listens as President Donald Trump holds a press conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Senior officials at the U.S. State Department named in a whistleblower complaint against President Donald Trump face the possibility of getting dragged into a partisan drama in Congress in the coming weeks, as Democrats move to impeach the president for trying to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on his political rival.

The complaint, made public on Thursday, centers on a July phone call in which Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the son of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Filed by an unnamed government official through formal whistleblower channels, the complaint alleges that the Trump administration tried to “lock down” records of the call and cover up the scandal.

The rapidly cascading ordeal poses the most significant threat yet to Trump’s presidency and is likely to consume Washington for the remainder of his term in office.

The complaint details how several key members of the State Department either listened in on the president’s phone call with Zelensky or had contacts with Ukrainian officials to “contain the damage” to U.S. national security.

These officials are likely to become key witnesses as Democrats explore articles of impeachment against Trump based on the charges leveled against him in the document.

The officials likely to be interviewed in the coming weeks include Ulrich Brechbuhl, one of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s key deputies. According to the whistleblower, Brechbuhl listened in on the July 25 call during which Trump repeatedly demanded an investigation of Hunter Biden, who had business dealings in Ukraine. (An unnamed senior official was quoted by CBS News and Bloomberg on Thursday as denying that Brechbuhl listened in.)

Other officials likely to be dragged before congressional investigators include Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union. According to the whistleblower, Volker and Sondland met with Zelensky’s team and other Ukrainian officials to help them “understand and respond to the differing messages they were receiving from official U.S. channels,” an apparent reference to interactions that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had with the Ukrainians.

In a brief press conference on Thursday, Pompeo defended the actions of his lieutenants and said they worked to support Ukraine against growing Russian influence. “To the best of my knowledge, so from what I’ve seen so far, each of the actions that were undertaken by State Department officials was entirely appropriate and consistent with the objective that we’ve had,” Pompeo told reporters.

But the scandal underscored the degree to which Trump distrusts career officials at the State Department and elsewhere in government—and the possibility that some could get dragged into the partisan spotlight.

“I want to know who’s the person, who’s the person who gave the whistleblower the information? Because that’s close to a spy,” Trump said during remarks to the staff of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations on Thursday. “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

While the identity of the whistleblower remains unknown, the New York Times described him on Thursday as a CIA officer who had been detailed to the National Security Council and has since returned to the agency.

Whether the government is able to protect the identity of the whistleblower represents a key test for officials. Experts warn that if the whistleblower is exposed, it will have a chilling effect on others who wish to come forward to expose illegal activity, for fear that it could derail their careers.

Trump’s comments implying that the whistleblower deserves punishment—made before an audience that included U.S. diplomats—heightens the stakes for civil servants, including those at the State Department.

“This is a crisis for the foreign service,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a former career diplomat who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO under former President George W. Bush. He said the impeachment saga and the Trump administration’s partisan handling of foreign policy have “weakened the foreign service” at a time when it “desperately needs solid leadership.”

The Ukraine scandal has already caused at least one casualty among the department’s civil servants: Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who was removed from her post two months before her tour was up. Trump and Giuliani perceived Yovanovitch as insufficiently supportive of the effort to dig up dirt on Biden and his son, according to the whistleblower complaint. Pompeo did not respond to questions from reporters leveled at him as he left the briefing Thursday on why he removed Yovanovitch.

In the July 25 call, Trump described Yovanovitch as “bad news,” but current and former diplomats rushed to her defense, describing her as a consummate foreign service officer who was pushing for anti-corruption reforms in Kyiv before she was removed from her job.

Yovanovitch is also likely to be called as a witness in the impeachment effort. The seriousness of that effort was on display Thursday on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee grilled the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, over his decision to withhold the complaint from Congress. (Maguire and the committee sparred over the document’s release in recent weeks, with Maguire relenting and turning over the document shortly before Thursday’s hearing.)

The influential Democratic chairman of the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, had long resisted an impeachment initiative, but revelations of the president using U.S. national policy as a lever for domestic political gain shifted the California Democrat’s position. On Thursday, he described Trump’s actions as “the most consequential form of tragedy.”

“It forces us to confront the remedy the Founders provided for such a flagrant abuse of office—impeachment,” Schiff said.

Some Republican members of Congress have described the allegations as troubling but accused the Democrats and the media of moving too fast without all the facts. “Instead of jumping to conclusions and accusations, this matter deserves thoughtful and careful consideration, which we know is highly unlikely to occur during an impeachment spectacle,” Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger said.

Staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed reporting to this article.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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