Pompeo’s State Department Reels as Impeachment Inquiry Sinks Morale
As the investigation grows, so, too, does the foreign service officers’ legal defense fund.
The fast-moving impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump has dragged the State Department into the center of the scandal and further wrecked morale at Foggy Bottom, presenting a stress test for how Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will balance his relationship with America’s diplomats against his relationship with the president.
The ever-expanding probe into the Trump administration’s apparent efforts to coerce foreign governments into digging up dirt on political rivals has even lower-level State Department officials wondering if they, too, need to lawyer up, with the foreign service officers’ union starting a legal defense fund for career officials caught in the impeachment crossfire.
The latest State Department drama came on Friday as Marie Yovanovitch—a decorated career diplomat forced out of her job as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May following a pressure campaign from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his now indicted associates—testified before Congress. The White House sought to ban her voluntary testimony, but she went ahead after a subpoena from the House of Representatives.
Some nine current and former officials said many in the State Department are shocked and angry that Pompeo did little to shield her. No senior State Department official, including Pompeo, defended Yovanovitch as she was thrust into the spotlight amid the impeachment scandal. The State Department, again at the behest of the White House, also blocked the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, from testifying before Congress on Tuesday, though his lawyer said Friday that he will testify next week.
“You don’t get credit for saying something about swagger, then caving the first time you get heat,” said Daniel Fried, who served as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under former President George W. Bush, referring to Pompeo’s promise last year to restore the State Department’s “swagger.”
In an interview with the Tennessean on Friday, Pompeo said, “I protect every single State Department employee. It’s one of the reasons that we asked the House of Representatives to stop their abusive prosecutions where they won’t let State Department lawyers sit with our employees.” Pompeo, a former congressman from Kansas, spearheaded House investigations into the Obama administration’s handling of the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attack.
One of Pompeo’s closest advisors, the career diplomat Michael McKinley, announced his resignation in an email to State Department staff on Friday amid internal strife at the department. In his farewell email, obtained by Foreign Policy, he made no mention of the matter, simply writing: “The decision is personal: it’s time after 37 years with the Department.”
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Yovanovitch’s situation has fueled fear that other diplomats could be caught between a legal rock and a hard place if they are summoned to testify before the House, officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said. They could be forced to choose between following directives from the White House and State Department and adhering to subpoenas from Congress compelling them to testify.
Pompeo has yet to comment on Yovanovitch’s dismissal, prompting diplomats to question whether their leader will have their backs if they find themselves flung into the impeachment maelstrom.
“We make a difference every day on issues that matter to the American people. … We also believe that, in return, our government will have our backs and protect us if we come under attack from foreign interests. That basic understanding no longer holds true,” Yovanovitch said in her prepared remarks to House investigators, which were obtained by the Washington Post.
“Today, we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within,” she said.
Trump, in a White House memo on his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the center of the impeachment scandal, said “the former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news.” He added: “And the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news.”
Pompeo was on the phone call.
“Amb. Yovanovitch’s statement today was in the proud tradition of our nation’s Foreign Service, emphasizing non-partisan commitment to our country’s interests and loyalty to our country’s elected leaders,” said Eric Rubin, the president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association and union of the U.S. foreign service, in an email.
Other career diplomats fear they could be next. The union that represents foreign service officers sent an email to all members on Tuesday asking for contributions to its legal defense fund, in anticipation of career diplomats being swept up in the legal battle over impeachment and potentially being hauled before Congress to testify. The email marks the first time AFSA has asked its members for donations to its legal fund in seven years, reflecting the growing and unprecedented nature of the pitched political battle in which the State Department finds itself.
There is no evidence that any career State Department official has been implicated in any wrongdoing in the impeachment inquiry, which centers on Trump and his political allies. But Democratic lawmakers have issued requests for depositions and subpoenas for career diplomats alongside a raft of other senior Trump administration officials and political appointees to investigate whether Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine unless it agreed to dig into baseless allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Yovanovitch’s dismissal in May was the first sign that something was amiss. A career diplomat who has served under four Republican and two Democratic administrations, she was recalled two months ahead of schedule after media attacks against her by a constellation of characters that included Guiliani, a senior Ukrainian official, conservative commentators in the United States, and Donald Trump Jr.
In her opening remarks, Yovanovitch said she did not know what Giuliani’s motives were for attacking her but speculated that people who worked with him “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
In a federal indictment unsealed Thursday, prosecutors alleged that two of Giuilani’s associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, illegally channeled foreign money into Republican politicians’ hands in a bid to help remove Yovanovitch.
In an interview with Foreign Policy on Friday, Giuliani denied that there was a secret campaign to remove Yovanovitch. “There was no secret campaign against her. It was an open campaign against her,” Giuliani said.
Asked whether he thought this was appropriate, the former New York City mayor said: “It wasn’t a campaign against a U.S. ambassador. It was a delivery of relevant facts. … Those allegations had to be known by the State Department. What was I going to do, cover them up?” The claims about the ambassador formed part of a packet of documents that Giuliani sent to Pompeo in March.
It was reported Friday that Giuliani’s relationship with Fruman and Parnas was the subject of a criminal investigation. Giuliani said he wasn’t aware of any criminal investigation into his relationship with the pair.
Yovanovitch has steadfastly denied the claims made against her.
At the time of her dismissal, a State Department spokesperson told Foreign Policy via email that Yovanovitch was “concluding her 3-year diplomatic assignment in Kyiv in 2019 as planned.” That wasn’t quite true.
In her opening remarks, Yovanovitch told lawmakers that the deputy secretary of state informed her in April that there had been a concerted campaign against her and that the department had been under pressure from Trump since 2018 to remove her. Instead of completing her tour, she told lawmakers that she was told in April to take the “next plane” from Ukraine back to Washington, where she was informed of her dismissal.
“He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause,” Yovanovitch said in her prepared remarks.
The indictment of the two Giuliani associates details their allegedly illegal funding of Republican congressmen, including former Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, now out of Congress after losing his seat in the last midterm election. He wrote Pompeo in May 2018, asking the secretary of state to consider removing the ambassador because of “concrete evidence from two close companions that Ambassador Yovanovitch has spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current Administration,” according to NBC News, which obtained a copy of the letter.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer