This Is Still Happening is a feature in which Slate offers recurring updates on Cabinet-level corruption, what could be done to bring the officials to account, and what Democrats are doing in response (generally, nothing). The latest installment is about a man at the center of the scandal that will likely result in President Donald Trump’s impeachment, Mike Pompeo.
The Official: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
What Is Still Happening: President Donald Trump is ever closer to being formally impeached for a scheme to pressure and, according to key witnesses, bribe Ukraine into announcing an investigation of his political opponents, including the Democratic National Committee and former Vice President Joe Biden. As part of that effort, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani worked hand in hand with the State Department to instruct the Ukrainians how they might meet Trump’s apparent demands. That State Department is run by Mike Pompeo, who has his fingerprints all over the Ukraine plot.
Before the Ukraine news broke, the top-of-his-class West Point graduate, ex-CIA chief, former Kansas congressman, and former Army officer was considered one of the top potential political heirs to Trump in the Republican Party. Now, as he hints at a potential Senate run in Kansas in 2020, the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives has turned up a pile of documents and testimony demonstrating the length and depth of his apparent involvement in the scandal, and his efforts to deceive Congress and the public about it:
• Emails revealed that Pompeo spoke with Giuliani at least twice in March, while the president’s attorney was undertaking a “smear campaign“ against Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and attempting to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals. One month later, Pompeo removed Yovanovitch from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
• A letter revealed that Pompeo’s office misled Congress about the reasons for Yovanovitch’s removal. The email suggested it was a routine matter of her having been “due to complete her three-year diplomatic assignment,” an event that “aligns with the presidential transition in Ukraine.” In reality, Yovanovitch was understood to be continuing at her post until she was abruptly ordered to come home on the “next plane”—for the sake of her “security”—in the middle of the night. Yovanovitch was never given a reason for why she was recalled, and State Department officials testified that it had nothing to do with her job performance. When asked about all this at a press briefing at the end of November, Pompeo refused to answer.
• Congressional testimony and an email provided to Congress by Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, revealed that Pompeo was “in the loop” throughout the Ukraine affair. Specifically, Pompeo was informed on July 19, one week before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s phone call with Trump, that Zelensky had been prepped to tell Trump “he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone.’ ” On that July 25 call, Trump asked Zelensky to investigate, as a “favor,” Biden and his son Hunter, as well as a conspiracy theory that Ukraine was behind the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee.
• Pompeo revealed in October that he was on that July 25 call. This came after a series of Sunday morning news interviews in which he suggested he had no idea what happened on the call. For example, in an interview with Fox News’ John Roberts before the call transcript was released, Pompeo was asked about “reporting in the Wall Street Journal that the president asked Zelensky about eight times to have the Ukraine work with his attorney Rudy Giuliani to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s involvement in Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company.” Pompeo flatly lied: “You’re asking me to comment on […] some reporting, I have no idea if that has any foundation whatsoever,” he told Roberts.
• Sondland’s testimony and an Aug. 11 email further revealed the extent to which Pompeo was in the loop. In an email addressed directly to Pompeo, his executive secretary Lisa Kenna was told about a statement about investigations that Sondland and Kurt Volker, special U.S. envoy to Ukraine, had negotiated with the Ukrainians in order to secure a White House meeting with Trump. The email read: “Mike – Kurt and I negotiated a statement from Ze[lensky] to be delivered for our review in a day or two. The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an invitation.” Kenna responded that she would pass the message to Pompeo.
• An Aug. 22 email revealed that Pompeo was aware the Trump administration’s Ukraine agenda was being conditioned on Zelensky using the country’s justice department to satisfy Trump. That email from Sondland, which requested a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Zelensky during a scheduled trip to Warsaw, read: “Should we block time in Warsaw for a short pull-aside for Potus to meet Zelensky? I would ask Zelensky to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine’s new justice folks are in place (mid-Sept[ember), that Ze should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US. Hopefully, that will break the logjam.” Pompeo responded: “Yes.”
Sondland testified to Congress that “logjam” meant the previously promised White House meeting and $390 million in military aid that were being withheld on Trump’s orders. The State Department denied that Sondland told Pompeo that he believed aid was tied to investigations of political opponents, but did not deny that is what happened.
• Sondland’s testimony revealed that the decision to inform the Ukrainians on Sept. 1 “that the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on” investigations was “based on my communications with Secretary Pompeo.”
• Sondland testified that the “State Department was fully supportive of our engagement in Ukraine affairs, and was aware that a commitment to investigations was among the issues we were pursuing.” As evidence, Sondland cited an email from Pompeo on Sept. 4 in which he told Sondland: “You’re doing great work; keep banging away.”
• Sondland testified that even after the conspiracy was uncovered, “as late as September 24, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Rudy Giuliani.” This is according to a WhatsApp message that Volker sent Sondland. The transcript of the July 25 call was released that day.
• Rather than recuse himself from responding to a congressional investigation of wrongdoing in which he apparently had a central part, Pompeo demanded that State Department employees not cooperate with the probe (many ignored his demand) and refused to turn over a single relevant document to the inquiry. As he has obstructed Congress every step of the way, Pompeo has also lied about it. During a State Department briefing just before Thanksgiving, Pompeo suggested to reporters that he was complying with congressional oversight. “We continue to comply with all of the legal requirements,” he said. “[W]e’ll continue to [release documents] as required by law and as appropriate so that appropriate oversight can be conducted.”
• Pompeo has falsely asserted that Biden and former President Barack Obama may have withheld military aid “because of Hunter Biden.” He is also still pushing Trump’s conspiracy theory that Ukraine may have been responsible for the 2016 DNC hack, telling reporters before Thanksgiving that “any time there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American elections, we not only have a right, but a duty to make sure we chase that down.”
How Long It Has Been Going On: The secretary’s involvement in the Ukraine scheme seems to date back at least to March, but Pompeo has been advancing—or at least “investigating”—Trump’s unfounded pet claims and conspiracy theories about Ukraine and Russia since he was in his last job as director of the CIA, at the start of the administration.
In October 2017, for instance, Pompeo falsely stated that “the intelligence community’s assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election.” The CIA never made that determination and the agency had to subsequently clarify that its assessment had not changed.
The following month, at Trump’s request, Pompeo met with a proponent of a conspiracy theory that Russia had not hacked the DNC, but that it had been an “inside job.” The meeting came three days before former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted on criminal conspiracy charges stemming from his work in Ukraine, which was funded by corrupt, pro-Russian political actors. While he was on the campaign, Manafort advocated the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine and not Russia that hacked the DNC. After Trump’s inauguration in 2017, Russian President Vladimir Putin also pushed the theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election. Again, as recently as Nov. 26, 2019, Pompeo said that it was his “duty” to look into any such allegations.
What Would Normally Happen: Under previous administrations, a scandal of this magnitude would force top lieutenants to the president to resign. It would also likely lead to a presidential impeachment.
What Democrats Have Done: Democrats have opened an impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump.
What Is Likely to Be Done: Democrats are likely to impeach Trump. If Republicans in the Senate determine not to remove Trump for the bribery scheme, what happens to Pompeo after that is unclear. Democrats could conceivably impeach Pompeo for all the same charges—obstruction of Congress, abuse of power, bribery—if their impeachment of Trump fails to remove the president. They could also subpoena Pompeo to testify and hold him in contempt of Congress for his failure to turn over documents. If a Senate trial fails to remove Trump, though, then it’s hard to imagine that Democrats will have the appetite to go after Pompeo with the same set of facts for the same alleged wrongdoing. The Department of Justice could also conceivably investigate what happened in Ukraine under federal bribery statutes, potentially implicating Pompeo. It’s clear that Attorney General William Barr will not allow such an investigation to go forward, but the episode could get a criminal investigation under a Democratic president in 2021.
In the meantime, it’s been reported almost daily that Pompeo is considering a 2020 run for the Kansas Senate seat being opened up by Sen. Pat Roberts’ retirement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has urged Pompeo to run, and Pompeo appeared with McConnell on Monday at the University of Louisville’s McConnell Center. New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez (no stranger himself to corruption complaints) has filed a complaint about Pompeo’s habit of finding occasions, using his position at secretary of state, to make repeated trips to Kansas. If Democrats can’t—or won’t—force Pompeo’s removal from office, they may be forced to try to beat him at the ballot box in a very red state.
How Impeachable This Stuff Is: As the second thing listed when the founders came up with impeachable offenses, “bribery” is really, really impeachable. That is why the president is likely to be impeached for it. 10 out of 10.