Officials Vent Impeachment, Transparency Frustrations at State Department Forum

Career diplomats question leadership over the lack of openness and failure to defend colleagues.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a press briefing in the State Department in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 1. Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

Frustrated career diplomats at an internal forum this week pressed for more transparency and questioned their senior leadership on how the U.S. State Department would protect its employees amid the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, officials have told Foreign Policy

At a forum focused on public diplomacy, senior officials were pressed on why the State Department has stopped conducting daily press briefings. Department officers also questioned the department’s third-ranking official, Undersecretary of State David Hale, as to why the department didn’t do more to protect a career diplomat removed from her post as ambassador to Ukraine after a campaign by Trump’s associates to oust her.

The question referred to former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was forced to resign in the face of hostility from Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his associates with business ties in Ukraine. Hale responded that when all the facts are out, he believed people would have a more positive picture of how the department handled her situation, according to several officials. Hale apparently did not elaborate further, but officials say he is expected to be summoned to testify in the House impeachment inquiry in the coming days. 

While there were some frank exchanges, and some officials described the atmosphere as tense, others who attended the forum said it was collegial and constructive on the whole. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been criticized in recent days by former senior career diplomats for allegedly failing to stand up for Yovanovitch and other employees, received a standing ovation when he addressed the forum on Tuesday morning. 

The exchanges reflected some mounting tensions between senior leadership in the administration and career diplomats, some of whom are angered by the perceived lack of support for their colleagues whose careers have been damaged in the ongoing impeachment inquiry. 

During another panel at the forum, one State Department official pressed a senior public affairs official on why the State Department stopped doing daily press briefings since Trump came into office, and “the whole room broke into applause,” according to two officials familiar with events. Morgan Ortagus, the State Department spokesperson, told the audience that the department was no longer doing daily press briefings full stop, according to the official. 

While the daily briefings have stopped, the State Department has continued conducting public briefings on specific issues as they arise. Since Ortagus came into the job earlier this year, the department has also made an effort to be more transparent beyond daily press briefings, several officials said, including organizing more regular background briefings for reporters with senior officials. 

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the State Department has faced scrutiny for shedding the tradition of daily press briefings. Daily press briefings, held for decades in both Democratic and Republican administrations, served as a symbol to other countries of the U.S. government’s transparency and also gave regular guidance to U.S. diplomats posted abroad and foreign governments around the world on Washington’s foreign-policy priorities. 

Reporters have also criticized the State Department for not responding to requests for comment on Ukraine and impeachment-related questions from the media. 

Thus far, the State Department has remained largely silent about diplomats called to testify, including Yovanovitch and William Taylor, the current acting U.S. ambassador to Kyiv. Pompeo has also sidestepped questions on Taylor and Yovanovitch, while the White House accused Taylor of being a “radical unelected bureaucrat” after his scathing testimony of the administration’s handling of Ukraine policy was leaked to press outlets.

The congressional impeachment probe has provided a behind-the-scenes look at how the State Department was ensnared in an effort by Trump and Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic political rival Joe Biden by withholding military aid to the country. Biden’s son Hunter Biden served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company while his father was vice president.

Giuliani has been accused of creating a parallel track of diplomacy with Ukraine on behalf of the president to advance his own business interests and do an end run around official diplomatic relations. 

Trump has denied any wrongdoing, and he and Republican lawmakers have repeatedly denounced the Democratic-led impeachment probe as unfounded and not transparent, with depositions taking place behind closed doors. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and their staff have access to the witnesses called to testify, many of whom have been State Department officials. 

Pompeo has criticized the impeachment probe as not being an open and fair process for the administration and the department.

“I, from the beginning, have been unhappy, unhappy because officers of the State Department have had to go testify without counsel from the State Department there, without the ability to prepare, the risk that there would be classified information that would leak out or be spilled in a way that the State Department couldn’t oversee,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox Business on Monday evening. “We couldn’t have counsel in the office—in the room. I regret that. I wish that these were open and fair and a process that reflected what the American people deserve.”

On Monday, the House impeachment panel released transcripts of testimony from Yovanovitch and Michael McKinley, a senior advisor to Pompeo who resigned over frustrations of how the administration was handling the impeachment inquiry and treating professional diplomats. 

McKinley said in his 37 years at the State Department, he “had never seen” anything like what Trump and his associates were doing to pressure Ukraine into investigating Biden. He also recounted concerns that other employees had of State Department lawyers apparently bullying and intimidating diplomats compelled to testify before the impeachment inquiry, though he didn’t offer additional specific details.

Yovanovitc in her testimony recounted how she felt threatened when she saw the memorandum the White House released of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump said she would “go through some things.” 

She said she didn’t fear for her own safety, but her friends have expressed concerns.

When Trump on Monday was asked by reporters about Yovanovitch, he responded: “I really don’t know her. … But if you look at the transcripts, the president of Ukraine was not a fan of hers either. I’m sure she’s a very fine woman I just don’t know much about her.”

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

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