Career Diplomats Fear Trump Retaliation Over Ukraine

State Department officials find themselves without many defenders in a hyperpartisan fight.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch arrives on Capitol Hill to testify.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch arrives for a closed-door deposition before members of the House of Representatives in Washington on Oct. 11. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

Officials in the U.S. State Department who work on issues related to Ukraine are expressing fear that their careers will become collateral damage and that they could face retaliation as they are asked to give testimony in the hyperpoliticized impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill.

Lower-level diplomats who operate outside the spotlight are now caught between high-profile partisan battles in Congress, an angry president, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has drawn criticism for not doing enough to publicly support the diplomats already caught in the crossfire.

Several current U.S. diplomats who spoke to Foreign Policy described an atmosphere of fear and trepidation in the department’s bureau that oversees work on Ukraine policy. “I would hope that [retaliation] would not happen,” a senior U.S. diplomat said. “I would hope that that’s an unlikely circumstance, but we’ve never found ourselves in a situation like this.”

Professional diplomats were again caught in the impeachment saga this week, when the White House issued a scathing rebuke of testimony from the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor. The White House castigated its own acting ambassador and slammed the impeachment process as “a coordinated smear campaign from far-left lawmakers and radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the Constitution.” President Donald Trump later tweeted that he does not know his acting ambassador to Ukraine and Taylor was probably a “Never Trumper”—a comment that may have irreparably damaged Taylor’s standing in Kyiv. (Taylor served as George W. Bush’s ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009.) 

Taylor’s testimony, parts of which were leaked to news outlets, painted a damning portrait of how Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to investigate one of his potential Democratic presidential rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, by withholding military aid for the country as it grapples with a yearslong war with Russian-backed separatists. 

It also exposed the risk career diplomats face as they testify before the House of Representatives in the impeachment inquiry. As the inquiry drags into its second week, with more depositions expected, career diplomats fear they will have no protection from senior levels of the department or White House if they are called in to testify.

Taylor was pulled out of retirement to serve as charges d’affaires in Kyiv after Trump removed the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, from her post. Yovanovitch testified that she fired after “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives,” citing Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Other State Department officials may soon have to follow in the footsteps of Taylor, Yovanovitch, and George Kent, a career diplomat who serves as a deputy assistant secretary of state, to testify. 

The White House and State Department have ordered each of the diplomats in question who are still serving in government not to cooperate with the inquiry, citing executive privilege. But they were compelled to testify after the House panels overseeing the impeachment inquiry subpoenaed them. All had to hire outside legal counsel to represent them in the depositions. 

“To put people in between the Congress and the executive branch and say, ‘If you don’t appear, then you’re in contempt of Congress. If you do appear, then you’re violating your instructions from your boss’—that’s a really tough place to be,” said one senior U.S. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Lawmakers who have attended the depositions have also expressed concerns about whether career diplomats will become collateral damage in the process, though there have not been any indications of reprisals thus far. “They’re putting their obligation to obey the rule of law in the United States of America above any threat they may have in disobeying an order,” said Democratic Rep. Bill Keating, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has attended some of the depositions. 

“Anyone that’s ordered to do something by your boss and doesn’t do it because they’re doing the right thing, you still worry about what happens when you go back to work,” he said. 

Even before the impeachment inquiry dragged the State Department into the center of Washington’s fiercest political fight, career diplomats have already been exposed to mismanagement and retaliation based on perceived political leanings. Senior Trump administration officials in the bureau overseeing relations with international organizations were the subject of a scathing report by the State Department inspector general, following an investigation into mismanagement and politically targeting professional diplomats. 

“We already saw the State Department Inspector General’s report about political targeting of career employees. While I can’t comment on what’s been discussed by witnesses, any sort of improper retaliation against State Department personnel is utterly unacceptable,” Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy. “Yet, sadly, it has become typical under this Administration. The Foreign Affairs Committee will continue to make it a top priority to protect our diplomats from abuse and harassment.”

Trump denies any wrongdoing related to withholding aid to Ukraine, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has also publicly denied that he was pressured to investigate the Bidens in exchange for military aid.

U.S. diplomats involved in Ukraine policy, along with an anonymous White House whistleblower, outlined their concerns that the president was improperly pressuring the Ukrainian government into investigating Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president. 

Among others who have been called to testify before the House, many compelled by a congressional subpoena, are: Kurt Volker, the former State Department envoy for Ukraine who stepped down amid the impeachment probe; Fiona Hill, a former top National Security Council aide on Russia; and Laura Cooper, a Defense Department official whose testimony was interrupted when dozens of Republican members of Congress stormed the secure room where she was set to testify to protest the way the inquiry was being handled. Philip Reeker, another career diplomat who serves as the acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, is expected to testify before the House on Saturday. 

Kent, according to people familiar with his thinking, believes that the State Department’s top leadership offered no support or reassurances ahead of his deposition. Kent’s lawyers did not respond to a request for comment for this story. 

Pompeo has criticized the impeachment process but said the department will work as required under the law with Congress to cooperate with the inquiry. “This inquiry will proceed. Congress will perform its oversight function. The State Department will continue to do all the things that we’re required to do under the law and the Constitution,” Pompeo told the Wichita Eagle in an interview on Thursday during a visit to Kansas.

“We understand their role. I was a member of Congress. I think it’s absolutely important that they perform their function in a way that is professional,” Pompeo said. “I wish that they were doing that. Unfortunately, today they are not.” 

Pompeo has so far refrained from offering any public defense of Yovanovitch or Taylor. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

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