Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on rocky terrain with President Trump and members of the State Department following critical testimony by diplomatic officials in the public impeachment hearings led by House Democrats.
Career foreign service officers and Trump appointees came forward last week to lay out in great detail how the president and his allies carried out a smear campaign against the now-former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and how the administration’s policy toward the country raised concerns among veteran diplomats.
The witnesses testified about their frustrations with the lack of a public defense from Pompeo when State Department employees were under attack or sidelined, and Trump has expressed frustration with officials underneath Pompeo who provided the bulk of damaging testimony about the president’s dealings with Ukraine.
Those tensions have led to questions about Pompeo’s standing with Trump and spurred speculation that he may use a long-talked about Senate campaign in his home state of Kansas as an off-ramp from the administration.
“I think that this has all done serious damage to the relationship between president and Secretary Pompeo, for all the reasons you can imagine. I don’t know if it’s recoverable or not,” said a former State Department official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The fragile relationship is a stark contrast to just two months ago, when Pompeo solidified his status as one of the president’s closest advisers following the ouster of national security adviser John Bolton. Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, has been part of Trump’s Cabinet since early in the administration when he served as CIA director.
His transition to secretary of State was hailed by those in the department seeking a clean slate after former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hollowed out its ranks. But recent testimony from officials in private depositions and public hearings laid bare how the mood quickly soured at the agency.
One State Department official described the feelings about Pompeo at the agency amid the impeachment inquiry as “a mixed bag.”
“He was looked upon favorably and came in with a positive attitude and energy post- Tillerson,” the official said. “But the department as a whole has grown weary because of the lens on the State Department.”
The State Department has played a key role in the impeachment process, both in terms of witnesses and the events at the heart of allegations that Trump abused his presidential powers.
Of the 12 individuals who testified publicly before the House Intelligence Committee, eight were current or former State Department officials.
Multiple witnesses detailed what they viewed as a smear campaign by Trump’s allies to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch from her post in Kyiv. They described their unsuccessful efforts to get the State Department to issue a statement of support for Yovanovitch before the president recalled her in May.
David Hale, the No. 3 official at the State Department, told lawmakers during a private deposition that he believed Pompeo was ultimately responsible for nixing a statement of support out of fear it would “only further fuel negative reaction.”
Hale’s testimony and recently released documents obtained by a watchdog group showed that Pompeo had been in contact with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, before Yovanovitch was recalled. Giuliani was at the forefront of White House efforts to raise doubts about the ambassador.
Pompeo’s problems deepened further with the testimony of Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who said last week he kept the secretary of State and others abreast of efforts to press Ukraine for investigations into 2016 election interference and Burisma, a Ukrainian gas firm that paid Hunter Biden to serve on its board during the Obama administration.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said in describing how the Trump administration tied a White House meeting for Ukraine to public announcements of investigations sought by Trump. He provided email exchanges with Pompeo in which the secretary encouraged him to “keep banging away.”
Pompeo was also on Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that prompted the impeachment inquiry, and has been confronted with questions about the controversy in numerous media interviews.
Asked at a briefing Tuesday about whether he spoke about Yovanovitch in the calls with Giuliani, Pompeo declined to address the matter.
“I don’t have much to say with respect to the Ukraine investigation, other than this: We continue to comply with all the legal requirements,” Pompeo told reporters. “We will continue to do that as required by law so that appropriate oversight can be conducted.”
Pompeo also defended the State Department’s efforts on Ukraine, saying they “had a very clear policy with respect to Ukraine and we executed it successfully.”
Trump, however, has expressed frustration with the State Department and its role in the impeachment proceedings, dismissing witnesses from the agency as “Never Trumpers.”
He has said little publicly about Pompeo’s involvement but issued tacit criticism of the secretary last month after William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, offered damaging closed-door testimony. Trump suggested Pompeo had made a “mistake” hiring Taylor.
The State Department did not respond to questions from The Hill about the relationship between Trump and Pompeo.
Trump has clashed with top national security officials throughout his administration, particularly when disagreements have broken out into the public or when the president has soured on certain actions they have taken. A number of top officials in his Cabinet have resigned or been dismissed following such disagreements.
But Pompeo is one of the few original Cabinet members who have remained in the administration and is among Trump’s most trusted advisers. He meets regularly with Trump, and did so on Tuesday before the president left to spend Thanksgiving at his Mar-A-Lago resort Palm Beach, Fla.
One Republican source doubted that the impeachment inquiry would adversely impact Trump’s relationship with Pompeo in any significant way, pointing to the close relationship the two have maintained over the past three years.
“Internally, things go up and down all the time in there,” the GOP strategist said. “But I do think that Trump sees the value of Pompeo and vise versa.”
Still, others acknowledge that while Pompeo has enjoyed strong backing from Trump, the developments amid impeachment have put him in a difficult spot between the department he leads and the president he serves.
“This has put Pompeo in probably the toughest position in his career as a Trump official,” said the State Department official.
A rift between Trump and Pompeo and the scrutiny of the impeachment hearings could hasten the secretary’s decision to pursue a 2020 Senate bid in Kansas.
Pompeo has long been considered a top contender to replace retiring Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). He has made multiple visits to the state in recent months, though he has repeatedly shot down talk that he is leaving the administration to launch a campaign.
Pompeo would be viewed as an immediate frontrunner if he enters the Senate race, according to Republican strategists, though he would be joining a crowded primary field. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, state Treasurer Jake LaTurner and businessman and former NFL player Dave Lindstrom are among the likely GOP candidates.
The president last week praised Pompeo in an interview with Fox News as an “incredible guy” doing “a great job,” but went on to suggest he could accept his secretary leaving to pursue a Senate campaign.
“If he thought there was a chance of [the GOP] losing that seat, I think he would do that,” Trump said. “And he would win in a landslide because they love him in Kansas.”
Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Kansas in decades, making it unlikely the GOP would need Pompeo to rescue the seat. Democrats, however, notched a statewide victory last year by winning the governor’s mansion.
But it is a turbulent time in an unpredictable administration, and questions about Pompeo’s role in the Ukraine controversy are sure to persist. If that scrutiny increases, the secretary may view a Senate candidacy as a desirable transition.
“I thought for a while… that he was looking for the right way to exit and the Kansas Senate seat was it,” the former State Department official said. “But in order to do it and do it well, he needs the support of president.”