WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has for months deflected questions about whether the Trump administration demanded political favors from Ukraine in exchange for military aid. He has refused to explain why he recalled the American ambassador, declared that it was "inappropriate" for his diplomats to testify before Congress and declined to hand over documents to impeachment investigators.
On Wednesday, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, filled in the blanks: He said Pompeo and his top aides "knew what we were doing, and why," and recited e-mails he wrote to Pompeo about the quid pro quo demanded by President Donald Trump. "Everyone was in the loop," Sondland said.
Sondland's testimony has undercut any notion that Pompeo, the administration's most powerful national security official, was not a participant in Trump's efforts to pressure Ukraine. It also firmly places him at the center of one of the nation's biggest foreign policy controversies in nearly two decades, since the debate over the intelligence that led to the war in Iraq.
Whatever Pompeo's future plans, Trump's secretary of state is now tied intimately to Ukraine controversy. Even before Sondland's testimony, Pompeo was rumored to be seeking an exit from the State Department, perhaps to run for a Senate seat in Kansas, his adopted home state, with an eye toward a presidential bid once Trump leaves the stage.
No matter what he does, Pompeo will almost certainly face charges that, at best, he abetted Trump in enlisting a foreign nation to help his 2020 campaign as the price for aid in a grinding war involving Russia in eastern Ukraine. At worst, Pompeo will be seen as coordinating and approving the demands that Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, announce investigations into dubious claims about the Biden family and 2016 election interference as the price for an Oval Office meeting and a resumption of American military aid.
Pompeo admitted last month that he took part in the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky but has refused to talk in detail about his involvement in the matter. Yet several of his top diplomats have gone to Congress to pull back the curtains on Trump's efforts, infuriating the president. State Department employees privately have cheered on those diplomats while criticizing Pompeo for what they call a failure of leadership.
Pompeo has told associates that he believes the impeachment testimonies are partly aimed at forcing him to play a Washington game that would end with him turning on the president to save his own career. And he refuses to participate, Pompeo has said.
On Wednesday, Sondland painted a picture of an activist secretary of state who was informed of attempts to force Zelensky to announce opening the investigations. Replying to an Aug. 22 e-mail from Sondland, Pompeo even approved a plan to have Zelensky tell Trump at a scheduled meeting in Warsaw that Zelensky would pledge to move forward "on those issues of importance" to the president, Sondland said.
"We kept the leadership of the State Department and the NSC informed of our activities," Sondland said, referring to Pompeo and John Bolton, the national security adviser at the time who oversaw the National Security Council. "They knew what we were doing and why."
Pompeo appears to have kept his Ukraine and Russia policy staff in the dark on those efforts. In effect, that means diplomats outside the executive offices were trying to carry out the traditional American policy to support Ukraine against Russia — and get the military aid flowing — while Pompeo was involved in Trump's efforts.
After helping Trump and Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, remove Marie Yovanovitch as ambassador of Ukraine — she championed anti-corruption measures — Pompeo failed to inform the veteran diplomat he picked to succeed her, William Taylor, of the political demands being made of Zelensky.
In testimony, Taylor described slowly uncovering the plan, and sending Pompeo a cable on Aug. 29 saying that withholding the aid was "folly."
Even then, Taylor did not appear to know of Pompeo's role.
Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the department, later disputed parts of Sondland's testimony. "Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents," she said. "Any suggestion to the contrary is flat-out false."