- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 3, 2019

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo came to Foggy Bottom last year vowing to get the State Department “its swagger back,” a motto that was music to the ears of career diplomats after the plunging morale that gripped the department during the brief tenure of President Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson.

For months, Mr. Pompeo’s drive and evident clout at the White House were embraced even by those at the State Department who privately disagreed with aspects of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy and his unorthodox rhetorical style. But with Mr. Pompeo and a slew of top State Department officials drawn increasingly into the impeachment furor around Mr. Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, many fear the swagger could turn out to be more of shamble.

Although some analysts say Mr. Pompeo is savvy enough to weather any politically charged storm, several current and former State Department officials have expressed concerns over the extent to which his role in Mr. Trump’s fateful July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — a call Mr. Pompeo acknowledged he was listening in on — could undercut his authority at the department he heads.

A number of senior career State Department officials have been summoned by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for an impeachment inquiry, and the department is fighting subpoenas for information on its Ukrainian deliberations issued by House Democrats.

Diplomats also are grumbling about the treatment of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was called home abruptly earlier this year, and the subject of cutting comments on the Trump-Zelensky phone call as Mr. Pompeo listened.

Few dispute that impeachment-hungry Democrats are eager to drag down Mr. Pompeo and others with Mr. Trump. That eagerness seemed to be fueled by the abrupt resignation last week of Kurt Volker, a U.S. special envoy for Ukraine who worked as a kind of liaison between officials in Kyiv and Mr. Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who was pressing for information about suspected corruption in Ukraine by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden and his son.

Mr. Volker, the first State Department official summoned to Capitol Hill in the Ukraine drama, spent nine hours behind closed doors Thursday answering questions from lawmakers about what he knew.

“Let’s be honest: There’s no question Pompeo’s in a difficult situation,” said one senior career Foreign Service officer who served in the diplomatic corps through the past several White House administrations and held high-level State Department posts under Presidents Trump and Obama.

“After what went on with Tillerson, people within the department had been feeling better under Pompeo for a few reasons: He’d already run a big agency, the CIA, and it was understood that he had President Trump’s ear,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “So you had this feeling of confidence that Pompeo was reasserting the State Department’s voice on foreign policy after it had fallen by the wayside under Tillerson.

“But what’s going on now, depending on how it plays out going forward, could really have a kind of chilling effect on that.”

‘Chance to shine’

Some say Mr. Pompeo could be strengthened if the Ukraine scandal fizzles out.

“Everything that’s going on with this Ukraine call madness is being blown totally out of proportion as if it’s ‘crisis, crisis, crisis,’ but if you look closely at it, there’s nothing there,” said Michael Pregent, a former longtime U.S. intelligence officer and now senior fellow with the Hudson Institute.

“This whole thing is purely political, and there’s nobody inside the foreign policy community who’s truly worried about the collapse of democracy,” Mr. Pregent said in an interview Thursday. “In reality, what’s going on actually gives Pompeo a chance to shine if he holds his ground. He’s a pretty popular figure.”

Mr. Pregent said the government’s ability to conduct foreign policy may take more of a hit than Mr. Pompeo will.

“The biggest risk is the lack of trust that foreign leaders may develop if they begin to believe that the U.S. government — and especially the way the opposition Democrat Party — is likely to be leaking every conversation the president or even the secretary of state has with those foreign leaders,” he said. “Foreign leaders are going to hold back in those conversations if they fear they’ll be leaked, so we risk the loss of honest conversations with these leaders.”

Mr. Zelensky reportedly has said he was surprised that his side of the private July 25 conversation with Mr. Trump was made public by the White House last week under pressure from Congress.

“That could present an unwanted challenge for Pompeo going forward because honest conversations with these people have to take place in order for our foreign policy to be effective,” Mr. Pregent said.

Mr. Pompeo has been on a foreign trip this week as the impeachment fight intensifies back home. He belatedly revealed his participation in the phone call this week and has offered a general defense of how top State Department officials acted.

“The phone call was in the context of … what the American policy is with respect to Ukraine,” he told reporters in Italy. “It’s been remarkably consistent, and we will continue to try to drive those set of outcomes.”

Mr. Pompeo has also criticized what he called “bullying” of State Department officials by House Democrats in their quest to obtain sensitive records and testimony.

“That’s unacceptable, and it’s not something that I’m going to permit to happen,” he said.

As the only administration official other than Vice President Mike Pence who has held top-level Cabinet status for Mr. Trump’s entire presidency, Mr. Pompeo carved out a wide sphere of influence within the White House. Mr. Trump tapped him two months before the 2017 presidential inauguration to lead the CIA, a position he held for a year and a half before taking over as secretary of state.

He arrived at the department amid struggling morale that coincided with budget cut threats and a major reorganization push by Mr. Tillerson, a former Exxon CEO whom Mr. Trump fired after just over a year on the job. The recent ouster of hawkish National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, who often clashed with Mr. Pompeo on policy, enhanced Mr. Pompeo’s clout.

New questions

But the Ukraine call has raised new questions, particularly about Mr. Pompeo’s view on the role that partisanship and politics ought to play in U.S. diplomacy and internal personnel issues.

More than 50 former female U.S. ambassadors wrote a letter this week lambasting Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Trump over the president’s assertion during the Zelensky call that Ms. Yovanovitch “is going to go through some things.”

The language “appeared to be a threat of retaliation for political reasons, which is both shocking and inappropriate,” the former ambassadors wrote. “These statements demean and threaten Ambassador Yovanovitch, who already was removed prematurely from her post in May for similarly opaque reasons driven by false reporting and innuendo, despite her very strong record of speaking out clearly and firmly against corruption in Ukraine.”

Ms. Yovanovitch, a career Foreign Service officer, rose to ambassador-level rank under President George W. Bush and was appointed to the Kyiv post in the last year of the Obama administration.

According to the whistleblower complaint against Mr. Trump, the president forced her out because he and Mr. Giuliani saw her as an obstacle to their efforts to get Ukrainian authorities to help investigate Mr. Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company accused of corruption. Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani have also pursued a theory that Ukraine was the real source of the “Russian collusion” theory that has hung over Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential victory and helped spark the Mueller investigation.

The secretary of state has drawn criticism for not standing up more forcefully for Ms. Yovanovitch.

Former top State Department officials, some with ties to Mr. Biden’s campaign or other Democrats, have been far more scathing in their criticisms of Mr. Pompeo.

“Morale at the State Department has plummeted,” Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs and an ambassador to NATO who is now an adviser to the Biden campaign, wrote in a New York Times op-ed Thursday. “Pompeo owes it to the men and women of the department to stand up for their nonpartisan service and defend them from the president’s bullying and persecution.”

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Burns added, “Mr. Pompeo seems unlikely to do this. His heated criticism on Tuesday of three congressional committees that are looking to depose diplomats involved in our Ukraine policy is not the sort of ‘support’ our diplomats need right now.”

The career Foreign Service officer who spoke with The Times said such criticism underscores the “difficult situation” facing the secretary of state.

“Let’s be honest. He can’t say, ‘Hey, Mr. President, how dare you treat my career people the way Masha Yovanovitch was treated?’” the official said. “It’s kind of a delicate dynamic in which Pompeo is faced with this question of how does he stand up for the Foreign Service, how does he have his people’s back, and yet not appear to be contradicting the president.”

Others say Mr. Pompeo, who has repeatedly been rumored to be a potential Senate candidate from his home state of Kansas next year, is simply playing politics in order to survive in the Trump administration.

“Secretary Pompeo has certainly played [Mr. Trump] effectively,” said P.J. Crowley, who served as an assistant secretary of state for public affairs during the Obama administration. “So far, he has avoided the guillotine.”

“But swagger is about more than a cocky and combative attitude. It’s about results that in turn translates into real global influence,” Mr. Crowley said. “That simply hasn’t happened where it counts. Ukraine is just the latest example of where diplomacy has been misdirected in pursuit of ephemeral objectives that are not realistic and do not serve America’s long-term interests.”

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