In testimony before the House impeachment inquiry last month, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo detailed the behind-the-scenes diplomatic reaction to President Donald Trump’s insults of the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Longtime diplomat Michael McKinley, the former Pompeo adviser, also described concerns within the department about the secretary’s response to the impeachment inquiry. The inquiry released a transcript of McKinley’s testimony on Monday, along with a transcript of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony. (Read McKinley’s transcript in full below.)
Trump’s insults of the ousted ambassador to Ukraine in the phone call with Ukraine’s president set off “alarm bells”
McKinley told the committee that he was disheartened by Trump insulting Yovanovitch in his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump said Yovanovitch was “bad news” and added, “she’s going to go through some things.”
Yovanovitch was actually recalled months earlier, in May, after a smear campaign against her from Rudy Giuliani and others.
But when the White House released the White House’s summary of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, it set off “alarm bells” McKinley said.
“This disparagement of a career diplomat was unacceptable to me,” he testified.
Department leadership didn’t defend Yovanovitch against Trump’s attacks
McKinley said he pushed for others in the department to release a statement in support of Yovanovitch, without success.
Yovanovitch herself told McKinley that “she would welcome more public support from the department,” McKinley testified. So did George Kent, another career diplomat who’s become a witness in the inquiry.
But leadership didn’t step up for the ousted diplomat: “I was told that the decision was not to issue a statement,” McKinley said.
“Realizing that there was no change in the handling of the situation and that there was unlikely to be one, I decided to step down,” he added.
The White House memorandum of the call was terrible for morale
McKinley saw his job as being a contact on “the seventh floor” — State Department leadership — for career diplomats around the world. And when the White House memorandum made Trump’s attacks against Yovanovitch public, McKinley said, diplomats took notice.
The call record “had a very significant effect on morale,” McKinley testified. He said he spoke to roughly a dozen diplomats about the memorandum.
“The silence from the department was viewed as puzzling and baffling,” McKinley said.
Pompeo rejected multiple requests to support Yovanovitch publicly
Pompeo didn’t respond to McKinley’s repeated attempts to get a department statement supporting Yovanovitch, McKinley testified.
“He listened,” McKinley testified of his first time raising the issue with Pompeo. “There was no pushback, no comment. It was just an acknowledgement that I was raising it.”
Pompeo responded similarly the next time McKinley brought up leadership’s lack of support for Department employees — in the same conversation that he told Pompeo he would be resigning.
“On that subject, he did not respond at all, again,” McKinley said.
McKinley spoke to Pompeo a third time over the phone when he presented his resignation. The Pompeo aide was “pretty direct” about the issue of not supporting career diplomats, he recalled.
“Again, I didn’t get a reaction at that point,” he testified.
A few days before he resigned, several senior department officials including a department spokesperson, Morgan Ortagus, responded positively to McKinley’s proposal in emails, McKinley testified.
Eventually, though, Ortagus told McKinley that “the Secretary had decided that it was better not to release a statement at this time and that it would be in part to protect Ambassador Yovanovitch not draw undue attention to her,” in McKinley’s words.
Another diplomat expressed alarm at the State Department’s response to the impeachment inquiry
McKinley recounted a conversation with another diplomat, George Kent, in which Kent discussed his alarm at the department’s reaction to the impeachment inquiry. Kent even wrote down his concerns in a memo, which McKinley sent to State Department leaders with no response.
“I interpreted the lack of a response as a response,” he testified.
There were “inaccuracies” in the department’s written response to the inquiry, Kent told McKinley — “in particular about protecting or providing legal support or services,” McKinley recalled.
“He also mentioned that he thought that the lawyer was trying to shut him up,” McKinley said of Kent, adding later that Kent felt he was being “bullied” by the department.
That testimony drew a stark contrast to Pompeo’s public response to the impeachment inquiry: He said that “sadly, there have been congressional inquiries that have harassed and abused State Department employees.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) clarified the matter during McKinley’s testimony.
“You mentioned that [Kent] was concerned about bullying,” he said. “One of the representations apparently made in that letter from the State Department [to the impeachment inquiry] was that State Department witnesses like Mr. Kent or perhaps yourself or others were being bullied, not by the State Department but by Congress.”
“But what Mr. Kent was raising with you was his concern that he was being bullied by the State Department. Is that correct?”
“That’s correct,” McKinley responded.
McKinley was alarmed by diplomats pursuing domestic political issues
Though the majority of his testimony focused on the treatment of career diplomats by Trump administration officials, McKinley did note his alarm upon reading text messages between Trump administration diplomats describing the hunt for political dirt in Ukraine.
He spoke specifically about EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. Text messages between the two men show them coordinating Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine with Rudy Giuliani, and communicating to Ukrainian officials that Trump wanted investigations that would help his chances in 2020.
“In 37 years in the Foreign Service and different parts of the globe and working on many controversial issues, working 10 years back in Washington, I had never seen that,” McKinley said, adding later: “It was extremely clear to everyone — I don’t think it’s in dispute on any side of the debate — that they were State Department officials being used in a way that certainly didn’t fit into any past example we can think of.”
After the memorandum of the Trump-Zelensky called was released, and later when Sondland turned over his texts to Congress, McKinley said “it became clear to me that State Department officials, if not the State Department itself, were being drawn again into the domestic political arena in some way.”
“I feel that this is not the way we maintain the integrity of the work we do beyond our borders,” he said. “We’re meant to project nonpartisanship overseas.”
Read McKinley’s testimony below: