Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has bristled at and brushed off questions about his role in the Trump administration’s Ukraine pressure campaign.
But the chief American diplomat is now at ground zero in that scandal, Kyiv, where he will meet with a central character in the unfolding drama, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Pompeo landed in Kyiv Thursday afternoon. He and Zelensky are scheduled to hold a joint news conference Friday.
Pompeo arrived in Ukraine at a particularly awkward time for him – and for the Trump administration, which is consumed with allegations that the president tried to pressure Zelensky for political favors. The Senate is weighing those allegations in its unfolding impeachment trial.
Pompeo’s recent statements about Ukraine have complicated his mission in Kyiv and exacerbated an already strained U.S.-Ukraine alliance. The State Department said Pompeo’s trip would highlight American support for Ukraine’s sovereignty as it battles Russian aggression.
But the U.S. has no ambassador in Kyiv right now – in part because of the impeachment scandal – and Pompeo recently suggested that Americans don’t care about Ukraine. During a contentious interview with NPR last week, Pompeo grew irritated with host Mary Louise Kelly when she pressed him about Ukraine. After the interview, Kelly said Pompeo shouted and cursed at her.
“‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?'” Pompeo yelled, according to Kelly’s account, the substance of which Pompeo has not disputed. “He used the F-word in that sentence and many others.”
On Wednesday, Pompeo sidestepped questions about whether he will ask Zelensky about the two issues at the heart of the impeachment trial now unfolding in the Senate: former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, while his father was vice president. Trump and his allies have made unsubstantiated claims that Joe Biden tried to shield Burisma from scrutiny.
Asked if he would raise the Biden-Burisma allegations with Zelensky, Pompeo did not directly answer. He said he would focus on helping Ukraine root out “corruption” and repel Russian attacks.
“When we were talking about corruption, we talked about every element of corruption inside of Ukraine,” Pompeo told reporters traveling with him on the trip, which includes other stops in Europe and Central Asia. “I don’t want to talk about particular individuals. It’s not worth it. It’s a long list in Ukraine of corrupt individuals and a long history there.”
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he’d be shocked if Pompeo pressed Zelensky on such politically explosive issues.
“I would think he’d be extremely cautious in his meeting with Zelensky,” said Miller, who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents on foreign policy.