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Pompeo boils over as Ukraine pressure increases

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts to distance himself from the controversy surrounding Ukraine and its role in President Donald Trump’s histo...
Mike Pompeo

(CNN) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s efforts to distance himself from the controversy surrounding Ukraine and its role in President Donald Trump’s historic impeachment trial collapsed this weekend, days before he leaves for an awkward visit to Kiev after questioning whether Americans “care” about the country.

Pompeo has had to grapple with damaging Ukraine-related headlines that raise questions about his temperament and flatly contradict his public claims about administration policy toward the country. Conservative allies have called him a “baby,” senior diplomats have publicly chastised him and State Department staff — pointing to the secretary’s emphasis on respect and professionalism — privately say they’re “incensed” about what they see as his hypocrisy and embarrassed by his leadership.

They’re so accustomed to his angry eruptions that some have nicknamed him “Mount Mike.”

Pompeo is set to land in Kiev Thursday as the administration’s Ukraine policy — specifically Trump’s push to exchange military aid and a White House visit for investigations into his political rivals — occupies center stage in Washington, where the Senate impeachment trial continues.

Pompeo’s profanity laced explosion at an NPR reporter who asked about Ukraine set off shockwaves that continue to ripple and are likely to overshadow his visit to Ukraine, which was rescheduled from early January because of the situation in Iraq. He is also scheduled to travel to the United Kingdom, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

‘Don’t be such a baby’

In a sneering public statement after the Friday interview, Pompeo made claims about the terms of the conversation that NPR promptly proved were untrue.

Pompeo’s stunning statement, released on Saturday and bearing the State Department seal, seemed intended for one particular audience — and appears to have hit its target. Just a day after it was released, Trump endorsed a tweet from conservative radio host Mark Levin, who wrote, “Why does NPR still exist? We have thousands of radio stations in the U.S. Plus Satellite radio. Podcasts. Why are we paying for this big-government, Democrat Party propaganda operation.”

Levin included a link to a Fox News piece about Pompeo’s response to the NPR reporter. “A very good question!” Trump wrote along with his retweet on Sunday.

But other supporters weren’t so impressed. “For goodness sake, Mr. Secretary, don’t be such a baby,” Steve Hilton, host of Fox News’ “Next Revolution,” said Sunday. Hilton said he appreciated Pompeo’s tough stance on issues, but criticized him for “unleashing a four-letter word tirade and putting out a ridiculous statement whining about what questions he agreed to answer.”

“You should be able to handle tough questions by now and don’t be such a bully,” Hilton said. “Foul mouth ranting at a reporter doing her job is an embarrassment to you and the administration. You should apologize and people will think much more of you if you do.”

In an escalation of the controversy, the State Department removed another NPR reporter from the press pool for Pompeo’s trip to Europe and central Asia later this week, the State Department Correspondents’ Association announced Monday.

Beyond the White House, fallout from the NPR interview continued with the leak of information from former national security adviser John Bolton’s book that flatly contradicts claims Pompeo made to NPR that there was no shadow foreign policy on Ukraine. Pompeo insisted that “the Ukraine policy has been run from the Department of State for the entire time that I have been here.”

Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” not only appears set to counter Pompeo’s declaration, but will also reportedly assert that Pompeo was fully aware of the White House agenda for Kiev. According to the New York Times, Bolton describes Trump saying that he wanted to keep $391 million in security aid to Ukraine frozen until officials there helped with investigations into Democrats, including Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden are at the center of the President’s impeachment trial. Trump has repeatedly made unfounded and false claims to allege that the Bidens acted improperly in Ukraine. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either father or son. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about the information reportedly in Bolton’s book.

‘Mount Mike’

Even Pompeo’s ability to fulfill his core duty as the leading US diplomat has come in for implicit criticism.

During his outburst at the NPR reporter, Pompeo questioned whether Americans “care” about Ukraine, prompting a public rebuttal from his former top diplomat in Ukraine. Bill Taylor, the retired ambassador who returned to lead the embassy in Kiev at the Trump administration’s request, was subpoenaed in the House impeachment inquiry and proved to be a pivotal witness.

In 800 words that add up to a dressing down, Taylor’s New York Times op-ed listed all the points the secretary himself should be making about Ukraine’s importance to US national security instead of questioning whether Americans care.

While in Kiev, Pompeo will meet with President Volodymr Zelensky as well as the foreign and defense ministers to “highlight US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the State Department said in its trip announcement. The secretary will also attend a wreath laying ceremony to honor those who have fallen amid ongoing conflict with Russia, and meet with religious, civil society, and business community leaders.

At the State Department there was little surprise about the secretary’s eruption with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly.

Pompeo is known to get angry and yell at those who work for him. For those staffers, the NPR outburst was simply a public example his private behavior. “And there were have it. A Mount Mike eruption on the record,” one State official told CNN.

Other staff members said the NPR incident revived their unhappiness over Pompeo’s dealings with the Ukraine scandal. They pointed in particular to his failure to back the career diplomats who were subpoenaed to appear before the House impeachment inquiry and his silence over the ouster of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

The highly respected career diplomat was abruptly removed from her post after a smear campaign by the President’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. She was told at the time that her safety was in question and has testified to the House that no senior official at State has ever explained why she was removed. Trump has repeatedly denigrated her publicly.

The New York Times also reported that in Bolton’s book, the former national security adviser describes Pompeo acknowledging to him in the spring of 2019 that Giuliani’s claims about Yovanovitch were baseless and that Giuliani’s real motive might have been because Yovanovitch was targeting his clients with anti-corruption measures.

Asked if he owes Yovanovitch an apology, Pompeo insisted to NPR that he has defended “every State Department official,” despite the fact that he has never publicly defended Yovanovitch. He didn’t respond when Kelly asked him to point to specific actions he’s taken in defense of Yovanovitch and never addressed the idea of apologizing to her. The gap between Pompeo’s words and actions and his behavior with NPR in general left many at State unsurprised, said one staffer who added that many see the secretary as hypocritical.

This person and others pointed to Pompeo’s move to unveil an “ethos” statement in April, hanging huge banners inside the department that declare, among other things, that staffers will “serve with unfailing professionalism, in both my demeanor and my actions, even in the face of adversity,” act with “uncompromising personal and professional integrity,” and take “ownership of and responsibility for my actions and decisions.”

‘Unfailing respect’

At the event to unveil the ethos statement, Pompeo went into detail about the ideas of integrity, professionalism and respect. “Professionalism isn’t dependent on position or salary. It’s about disagreeing without being uncivil,” Pompeo said before stressing the need to “show unfailing respect for each other, simply because we are all human beings created by God.”

One State Department official, speaking on background, said that after the NPR outburst, they and their colleagues were “angry, embarrassed, and disappointed that Secretary Pompeo is not living up to the ethos that he recently implemented.”

The State Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment.