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State Department Pressed Pompeo to Emphasize ‘One Mission’ in Ukraine

Memo urges secretary of state to cut through confusion created by impeachment testimony.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky address the media following their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 31. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

An internal U.S. State Department cable drafted ahead of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip to Ukraine this week urged him to offer reassurances that the Trump administration was pursuing “one mission” in Ukraine, in what appeared to be an effort to clarify confusion stemming from policies under question in the ongoing impeachment trial.

The cable, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy, carefully alludes to a central issue at the heart of impeachment. While the Trump administration was pursuing long-standing U.S. policy priorities in Ukraine—anti-corruption and promoting democracy as Kyiv fought Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine—associates close to Trump were pursuing another one entirely, even when it was at odds with the official policy: pressuring Ukraine’s government into investigating one of Trump’s Democratic political rivals and withholding vital military aid to Ukraine in the process.

Despite changes in embassy leadership and political uncertainty, our team remains strong, results-oriented, and focused on making the most of Ukraine’s once-in-a-generation opportunity to consolidate its Revolution of Dignity and solidify U.S. interests in the region,” a State Department cable for Pompeo read, referring to the 2014 revolution that ousted a leader with close ties to Moscow who was accused of widespread corruption. 

“Your assurance of support for our long-standing bipartisan Ukraine policy will not only be important to the Ukrainians, but also underscore to our Embassy and the broader U.S. foreign policy community that we truly are one team pursuing one mission in Ukraine in the service of the American people,” the cable read.

As Pompeo visited Kyiv on Friday, he sought to reassure the Ukrainian government that the United States backed Ukraine despite the political storms brewing in Washington. But his staff at the State Department were also watching carefully to see what his message to them would be, as well.

After meeting with top Ukrainian government leaders, he met with staff of the U.S. Embassy, chatting informally and taking selfies with them. The embassy hasn’t had a full-fledged ambassador in more than six months. 

To his Ukrainian audience, Pompeo brought a message of reassurance during his visit to Kyiv. “The Ukrainian people should know the United States understands that Ukraine is an important country. It’s not just the geographic heart of Europe. It’s a bulwark between freedom and authoritarianism in Eastern Europe,” he said during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday.

“Today, I am here with a clear message. The United States sees that the Ukrainian struggle for freedom, democracy, and prosperity is a valiant one. Our commitment to support it will not waver.”

Zelensky said the United States and Ukraine have “excellent relations” that aren’t hampered by impeachment. “I don’t think that these friendly and warm relations have been influenced by [the] impeachment trial of Mr. President, but many times I have reiterated this is our strategic ally and we are doing everything in our power to step up our cooperation,” he said.

State Department employees have been dragged into the impeachment spotlight in recent months, with some subjected to partisan attacks and one, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, ousted from her job after a smear campaign by associates close to Trump. Pompeo has faced fierce criticism from former diplomats and some U.S. lawmakers for not speaking out in defense of Yovanovitch in the months since she was removed from her post, culminating in a tense interview and then expletive-filled outburst with an NPR host ahead of his travels.

“I’ve defended every single person on this team. I’ve done what’s right for every single person on this team,” he said before ending the interview—though when pressed, he did not point to a specific instance in which he defended Yovanovitch.

But Pompeo appeared to remain silent as Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, reportedly conducted a “domestic political errand” on Ukraine alongside other associates and Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, according to a former top White House aide.

Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top National Security Council aide on Europe and Russia, described in her hearing with House investigators how two policies on Ukraine were going on simultaneously. “Those two things had just diverged,” she said.

Trump bought into unsubstantiated allegations made against Yovanovitch by associates close to Giuliani and attacks in right-wing media outlets as she pushed forward U.S. anti-corruption initiatives in Ukraine. “Get rid of her!” Trump appeared to say in a secretly recorded dinner with two of Giuliani’s indicted associates on April 30, 2018, obtained this month by ABC News. “Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”

She left Kyiv in May 2019. Internal State Department emails released months later under a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the department misled Congress over how she was removed from her post.

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

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