WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Ukraine this week amid questions about his role in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Kyiv for political favors – and while the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy is in disarray.
Pompeo will land in Kyiv on Friday, and he plans to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been thrust into the eye of an American political storm.
Pompeo’s visit comes at a politically awkward time. On Dec. 18, the House voted to impeach Trump, based on allegations that he solicited Ukraine’s interference in the 2020 election and obstructed Congress’ investigation into the matter. It’s not clear when the Senate will hold a trial on the matter, but impeachment will be at the top of lawmakers’ agenda when they reconvene next week.
State Department emails and testimony from the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry suggest that Pompeo knew about – and approved of – the president’s push to get Zelensky to open two investigations that could benefit Trump in his 2020 reelection campaign.
Pompeo has repeatedly refused to say how much he knew about the Ukraine pressure campaign, and he has dismissed the impeachment proceedings as “noise” and “silliness.”
Katharine Quinn-Judge, a senior analyst and Ukraine expert with the International Crisis Group, an independent organization devoted to conflict prevention, said that for many Ukrainians, the scandal is not all that shocking.
“Ukrainians expect politicians to be corrupt and self-interested and aren’t particularly shocked by the idea of a president soliciting dirt on a political opponent in return for aid,” Quinn-Judge said. “For some people, the scandal would seem to confirm what they have long suspected – that the U.S. government is just as corrupt and cynical as their own but is just much better at hiding it.”
More: Trump’s conspiracy theories thrive in Ukraine, where a young democracy battles corruption and distrust
She said Ukrainians hope the United States will remain a solid ally as Ukraine tries to counter Russian aggression and nurture its fledgling democracy.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls the impeachment proceedings “silliness.” (Photo: JIM LO SCALZO, EPA-EFE)
The Ukraine scandal created upheaval inside the State Department and the National Security Council, spurring the departure of a half-dozen seasoned foreign policy officials with Ukraine expertise. Trump’s special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, resigned in September. Tim Morrison, the president’s national security expert on Russia and Europe, left in October.
Pompeo will land in Kyiv hours after William Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, leaves his post.
“The timing will be particularly awkward as the visit is expected to coincide with Bill Taylor’s departure,” Quinn-Judge said.
Taylor replaced Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Pompeo cut short her tenure in Kyiv amid a campaign for her ouster by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who accused her of obstructing the investigations Trump wanted.
All those American diplomats testified before the House impeachment inquiry. Taylor’s presence in Kyiv could have been particularly awkward for Pompeo, since the longtime foreign service officer provided testimony to the House impeachment committees.
Taylor told lawmakers he was alarmed at Giuliani’s foreign policy operation, and he feared Trump was using nearly $400 million in U.S. security assistance for Ukraine as leverage to get Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate. Trump also wanted Zelensky to probe a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
More: Five presidential conspiracy theories debunked
The Wall Street Journal reported that Pompeo did not want to be photographed with Taylor and asked him to return to Washington even though his tenure is not over.
A senior State Department official, who briefed reporters Monday on the condition of anonymity, said Pompeo’s visit would focus on America’s commitment to helping Ukraine stave off Russian attacks on its sovereignty and supporting Zelensky’s anti-corruption agenda. This official would not say whether Pompeo would ask Zelensky about the two investigations Trump wanted, into Biden and the 2016 election. And he would not address the report that Pompeo asked Taylor to leave Kyiv before his arrival.
Ukraine, a U.S. ally, is embroiled in a conflict with Russia that has claimed nearly 14,000 lives. Zelensky, 41, a former TV star, was elected in part on a pledge to help resolve that conflict.
After taking office in May, Zelensky sought a strong, public show of support from Trump in that endeavor. Instead, Trump denied Zelensky a coveted White House meeting and temporarily withheld the military aid that Ukraine needs to fight Russian-backed separatists inside its borders.
More: Putin gloats over impeachment probe as Ukraine gets dragged through America’s political mud
Pompeo defended the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy, saying he is “proud” of the administration’s accomplishments. He noted that Trump approved providing lethal military aid to Ukraine, a step the Obama administration resisted.
“We delivered remarkable outcomes for the Ukrainian people, and I hope that we’re able to continue to do so,” Pompeo said Nov. 20 at a news conference in Brussels.
Pompeo’s visit comes at a delicate time for Zelensky. This month, the Ukrainian leader met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to revive a 2015 peace deal. The two men failed to reach a breakthrough but agreed to keep talking.
Pompeo reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia, saying Moscow needs to return the Crimean Peninsula to Ukrainian control. Russia annexed that territory in 2014 and backs Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Pompeo’s trip to Ukraine is the first stop on a five-country tour of Europe and Central Asia. He will also travel to Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Cyprus.
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/12/30/pompeo-lands-kyiv-friday-he-plans-meet-ukrainian-president-volodymyr-zelensky-amid-trump-impeachment/2750046001/