The impeachment inquiry finally caught up to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday and at the worst possible time: At a separate hearing on Capitol Hill the same day, senators grilled his nominated deputy secretary, Stephen Biegun, over Pompeo’s much-questioned management of the State Department.
All this comes as Republican strategists are pushing Pompeo to leave the administration and pursue a U.S. Senate seat in Kansas.
In the House, Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testified before a fiery impeachment panel that Pompeo was kept directly apprised of efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate one of the president’s political rivals in a room jampacked with lawmakers, reporters, and cameras. Pompeo, along with Vice President Mike Pence, were both “in the loop,” Sondland said. Both Pence’s office and a State Department spokesperson have disputed Sondland’s testimony.
Although Pompeo was listening in on President Donald Trump’s infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—during which Trump allegedly pressured Zelensky to investigate a political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden—the secretary of state has avoided harsh scrutiny until now.
The hearing overshadowed a separate hearing on the Senate side, where in a sparsely populated, wood-paneled room, Democratic lawmakers hammered Biegun, Trump’s presumed new deputy secretary of state, over questions Pompeo has sidestepped or refused to answer himself: whether he was OK with the personal attacks on career diplomats dragged into the impeachment probe, whether he would act lawfully and ethically in his job, and how he would rally a demoralized diplomatic corps pushed into the center of the impeachment scandal.
Biegun broke from his boss to defend a longtime foreign service officer whose career had been derailed amid a campaign by Trump’s inner circle now at the heart of the impeachment probe. Pressed by Senate Democrats, Biegun praised Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as a “very capable foreign service officer” and said she was “slandered” by parties outside the United States before she was removed from her job.
Biegun’s comments mark a conspicuous departure from Pompeo, who has faced fierce criticism from former diplomats for not doing enough to defend State Department employees, including Yovanovitch, who have been roped into the ongoing impeachment probe.
Pompeo now also faces a new wave of questions in the impeachment probe as Sondland testified that he was directly involved in the events surrounding the matter of impeachment, including contacts with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, a potential rival of Trump’s in the 2020 presidential race.
Yovanovitch was removed from her job after a smear campaign by Giuliani and his business associates this year. She faced unfounded—and later debunked—allegations that she privately derided the president and instructed Ukrainian officials on whom not to prosecute in their efforts to root out corruption. Her ouster is one of a series of details that has emerged from the impeachment scandal, which has shed light on the inner workings of Trump’s approach to diplomacy and sapped morale at the State Department.
Pompeo has repeatedly dismissed the impeachment hearings as unfounded and insisted that Trump did not act improperly in his dealings with Zelensky. During a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday, he said he hadn’t seen Sondland’s testimony but said he was proud of U.S. policy on Ukraine under Trump. “I know precisely what American policy was with respect to Ukraine. I was working on it, and I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished,” he said. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus later followed up on the testimony, tweeting: “Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the President was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestions to the contrary is flat out false.”
Pompeo has largely sidestepped questions about career diplomats who worked under him, many of whom faced criticisms from the president himself and right-wing media after being compelled to testify.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” Trump tweeted as Yovanovitch testified on Nov. 15.
Asked about the comments on Nov. 18, Pompeo said: “I’ll defer to the White House about particular statements and the like. I don’t have anything else to say about the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings.”
Biegun, a widely respected Republican foreign-policy figure who served as the U.S. envoy for North Korea negotiations, was grilled on questions during his confirmation hearing on Wednesday that his boss has separately dismissed or refused to answer. While he had no firsthand knowledge of the events surrounding Yovanovtich’s departure or Ukraine, he would assume a senior role in the department and be responsible for managing the diplomatic corps if confirmed.
Amid an ongoing push by Republican strategists to get Pompeo to leave his post in the administration to run for Senate in Kansas, Biegun could also become acting secretary of state.
Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Biegun on whether he was OK with how Yovanovitch was treated.
Biegun said that while he hadn’t worked with her in many years, “I found her to be a very capable foreign service officer. And through friends and colleagues that remained in close contact and working with her over the years, my esteem has done nothing except grow for her.”
“It is clear to me that an outside party based in Ukraine slandered her,” he said. “And that information flowed through media outlets and through other conduits into the government.”
Menendez said his answer was “less than satisfying.”
Menendez also criticized Pompeo for not cooperating with Congress on producing documents related to the impeachment probe. “While completely unacceptable, it is sadly not surprising that Secretary Pompeo has obstructed the House inquiry and has refused to produce even a single document to Congress,” he said at the top of the confirmation hearing. “Mr. Biegun, you may very well be on the hook for making decisions about cooperation with lawful congressional subpoenas.”
On Tuesday evening, Time reported that Pompeo told three prominent Republicans in recent weeks that he plans to leave his job to run for Senate. Several people close to Pompeo who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity have strongly pushed back on the story, however.
“Secretary Pompeo is only focused on executing President Trump’s foreign policy goals and completing the mission for the American people at the State Department. Anyone who says otherwise is just wrong,” said one person close to the secretary.