Transcript: Mike Pompeo's State Department

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, Mike Pompeo's State Department.
Image: Mike Pompeo
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks to journalists during a news conference during a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 20, 2019.Francisco Seco / AP

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Mike Pompeo's Statement Department

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Monday, November 25th, and here's what's happening. (MUSIC)

Archival Recording: So we're getting a little bit of new information now about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's role in this whole Ukraine controversy.

Kornacki: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has spent most of the fall avoiding scrutiny over his role in the Ukraine scandal, but then witnesses from the State Department began to testify against Pompeo's orders. And what they told Congress put Pompeo closer and closer to the events around the impeachment inquiry.

Gordon Sondland: Secretary Pompeo essentially gave me the green light to brief President Zelenskiy about making those announcements.

Kornacki: Just last week in his televised hearing, Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, directly implicated the Secretary of State.

Adam Schiff: And based on the context of that email, this was not the first time you had discussed these investigations with Secretary Pomp, was it?

Sondland: No.

Schiff: He was aware of the connections that you were making between the investigations and the White House meeting and the security assistance?

Sondland: Yes.

Schiff: Did he ever take issue with you and say, "No, that connection is not there. You're wrong"?

Sondland: Not that I recall.

Kornacki: Mike Pompeo was supposed to fix the State Department after former Secretary Rex Tillerson was fired last year. Now though, he is a figure in the impeachment inquiry. And today on Article II we are asking: What went wrong? Dan Decide Luce is a national security and global affairs reporter for the investigative unit at NBC News, and he joins us now. Dan, thanks for being with us.

Dan De Luce: Thank you.

Kornacki: So let's start at the beginning when it comes to Mike Pompeo. And remind us, I think a very basic question here, but how he even got to this position, the position of Secretary of State in the first place. 'Cause I can remember Trump first got elected in 2016. There was that meeting with Mitt Romney. There was all the talk Romney would become his Secretary of State. That didn't work out. Then it became Rex Tillerson. He was the Secretary of State. Where and how did Pompeo enter the picture as Secretary of State?

De Luce: So he was a conservative from Kansas, a Kansas congressman who really was not a national figure per se. He made a name for himself during the Benghazi congressional inquiry that targeted then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He was picked to be CIA director when Trump entered the White House.

And he really hit it off with Trump. He developed a rapport. By all accounts, he would come in and do the intelligence briefing himself, personally, every day. And so out of all the Cabinet members, he started really kinda getting an inside track with the President. And their conversations would go beyond the intelligence briefing, and they would discuss other things.

So Pompeo had started developing some influence and rapport there. And when President Trump became very dissatisfied with Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State, he turned to Pompeo to give up his job at CIA to take over at the State Department. And it went well initially.

Kornacki: Take us back to that moment and sort of the context there. 'Cause you mentioned Rex Tillerson was pushed out. I think he was fired in a tweet by President Trump. There were all sorts of reports about comments Tillerson may have been making behind closed doors about Trump. Trump certainly didn't seem fond of Tillerson. What was the condition of the State Department? And when you say Pompeo got off to a good start, what did that look like?

De Luce: Well, it was really because he was just a new face at that point. Tillerson kind of had a double whammy working against him. So on the one hand, he was clashing with the President over policy. So you had a dynamic where Tillerson and the then-Defense Secretary, General Mattis, were very much aligned on issues and they were trying to often steer the President away from what they felt were some bad decisions or bad inclinations. So Trump was getting frustrated with him in that sense.

And then the other side of this was in the building among the career diplomats Tillerson had alienated himself because he went in there and said, "Okay, I'm gonna reorganize, I'm gonna redesign the State Department." And he brought in non-career people, and he had a small, tight circle. And the feeling was he wasn't speaking to the career diplomats in the building very much.

And then he made some administrative management decisions that were extremely unpopular. There was a program that allows diplomats' spouses to work under certain circumstances when the diplomat's assigned to various places overseas. He put a freeze on hiring generally and froze this program that allowed spouses to work. And it just angered people tremendously, on top of everything else.

So Pompeo has some sense of leadership and knows that morale is low. And he does a few things very quickly, including undoing this freeze on allowing spouses to work. And that goes over well. And he commits to making more appointments. There were all these vacancies, all these nominations that weren't going forward. And he pledged to move on that.

And then of course the State Department employees were glad that he had a rapport with the President because every Foreign Service officer wants the State Department to have, you know, weight and influence with the president, whoever the president is. So he did get off to a certain positive start, and there was some relief in the building when Tillerson left.

Kornacki: He comes in. There is some goodwill it sounds like among State Department folks. Fast forward then more than a year later. The whistleblower allegations come out this summer. When this story broke, what did we know then? What did we think then about what Mike Pompeo's role was in that?

De Luce: It was a big question. And he got asked pretty early on. There is a pretty interesting moment when he's on ABC with Martha Raddatz on a Sunday, September 22nd, and he's asked about the phone call and asked, you know, "Do you think it's a good idea for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political opponent?" And he is evasive.

Martha Raddatz: What do you know about those conversations?

Mike Pompeo: So you just gave me a report about a IC whistleblower complaint, none of which I've seen.

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De Luce: He doesn't say that he didn't know about the phone call, but he doesn't acknowledge what we learned later, which was that he was listening in on the phone call between President Trump and Zelenskiy. So he got a lot of scrutiny after that and criticism that he was being cagey.

So what was happening was at the beginning there was a question. What did Pompeo know? When did he know it? What was his role? Was he opposing this? Was he encouraging this? And so the first answer we get is a non-answer, is evasion. And then the second piece of information we get is, "Oh, actually, he was on the call."

Pompeo: As for was I on the phone call, I was on the phone call. The phone call was in the context of now I guess I've been the Secretary of State for coming on a year and a half. I know precisely what the American policy is with respect to Ukraine. It's been remarkably consistent. And we will continue to try to drive those set of outcomes.

Kornacki: So he was on the call. Then we have the public hearings the last couple weeks. Several interesting items emerge from that. The biggest one, we'll start on that. Gordon Sondland says that Pompeo was, quote, "in the loop" when it came to all of this. What did we learn from Sondland's testimony and from the others when it comes to that question of Pompeo and being in the loop on what Sondland said was a quid pro quo?

De Luce: That's right. Sondland's testimony does not help Mike Pompeo's case because he says everyone's in the loop.

Sondland: August 11th, and this is critical, I sent an email to Counselor Brechbuhl and Lisa Kenna with the subject "Ukraine." I wrote, "Mike," referring to Mike Pompeo, "Kurt and I negotiated a statement from Zelenskiy to be delivered for our review in a day or two. The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough," the boss being the President, "to authorize an invitation." Miss Kenna replied, "Gordon, I'll pass to the Secretary. Thank you." Again, everyone was in the loop.

De Luce: And that phrase included Pompeo. And he made it very clear that Pompeo was being communicated with and was aware of what they were doing and what the President wanted them to do when it came to prodding and pushing the new president of Ukraine to conduct investigations that would be of personal benefit to Trump's political future. So Pompeo comes out of the Sondland testimony not very well.

Kornacki: So, Dan, what is Pompeo's answer for all this? Does he have a defense that he's offering? Has he said anything about this?

De Luce: That's a really good question. And in the end, we never really have heard a definitive answer. He continues to basically change the subject when he gets asked about this. And he just kind of dismisses the whole inquiry as this deeply partisan Democrat witch hunt. And he has not explained what his view of this was.

In other words, you know, he hasn't come out and said, "This was a bad idea, and I opposed it, but the President overruled me." He hasn't said that. Nor has he said, "I supported this. It was for these reasons. And this is why I did what I did or I said what I said."

So what we're left with is the testimony of Sondland and other witnesses. We're left with the phone call that we've all seen that he was in on. And we're left with a key fact, which is Ambassador Yovanovitch is removed from her job. And that's a decision for Pompeo. And he's been asked about this.

Archival Recording: Just specifically one thing. When Ambassador Yovanovitch was on the Hill on Friday, the President made a tweet right when she was appearing, saying that everywhere that she went turned bad. Is it an assessment that you agree with? You've known her.

Pompeo: I don't have anything to say. I'll defer to the White House about particular statements and the like. I don't have anything else to say about the Democrats' impeachment proceeding. If somebody else has a substantive question--

De Luce: And he basically doesn't really directly answer the question.

Kornacki: Right. That's, I think, the other major issue that emerged, you know, from these hearings. And that was, as you say, these ambassadors are part of the State Department. The Secretary of State at least in theory has their back in public. This was not the case with Pompeo and Yovanovitch. Has that affected Pompeo's standing with the other ambassadors, with the ambassadorial corps that's out there?

De Luce: Yes. In a dramatic, dramatic fashion. In a deeply damaging way. He did have some goodwill going in. And whatever goodwill there was has been, I think, decimated by this whole Ukraine story. And even some former ambassadors to Ukraine wrote to Pompeo, saying, "Please publicly defend her. She's being unfairly attacked. Allegations are being made that are baseless. And this is a very nonpartisan, very professional diplomat. Please defend her."

And he doesn't reply directly to that letter, and he doesn't publicly defend her. And he recalls her. I think for that reason he has really lost the building. That's at least what many people there tell me and will tell you. And so that is a defining moment for him in terms of trying to be a leader at the State Department.

Kornacki: Okay. We'll be back with more in just a moment. (MUSIC) When Yovanovitch was recalled, as this campaign to disparage her is playing out, her replacement is Bill Taylor. Bill Taylor had held the post before, had impeccable credentials when it came to representing the United States in Ukraine.

But Taylor of course has emerged, certainly from the Trump critics' standpoint, they have viewed him as one of the most effective witnesses in these impeachment hearings. Was it Pompeo's call to get Taylor in there as the replacement to Yovanovitch? And what was that relationship like, Pompeo and Taylor?

De Luce: See, that's a key point. And that's what illustrates the nuance here. You can see that if he's approving and seeks out the appointment of an equally seasoned, experienced diplomat to replace Yovanovitch, that seems to indicate that he doesn't want a yes person there.

And so you'll have defenders of Pompeo say, "Hold on. If he was so weak on all of this, he could have appointed someone else and not someone of the stature that Taylor has." So you can see him unable to defend Yovanovitch, presumably because that would put him completely on the outs with President Trump. So he had to bow to that demand to get rid of her. But then he tries to salvage the situation by appointing Taylor to replace her. That's how people in the building have perceived it. And that's how retired diplomats have perceived that.

Kornacki: I mean, yeah, it sounds like what you're describing is a Secretary of State who's sort of torn between a desire to run the department one way and a sense that there are imperatives he has to address that take him another direction.

De Luce: Yes. And I think Pompeo's story is incredibly illustrative of the Trump presidency. He's really trying to thread the needle, and it's not clear that it's possible. And I think Secretary Mattis when he was Defense Secretary had a similar kind of dilemma. You know, how do you try to steer the ship of state in a more constructive direction but still not completely have a falling out with your commander-in-chief?

And Mattis found that it was not possible. And in the end, he resigned. And now, you see Pompeo where you could ask the question, "What if he had stood up for Marie Yovanovitch? What if he had done that publicly? What would've happened? You know, would Trump have then said, 'That's it. You know, you're disloyal. You're defying me. You're out'?" You know? We won't know. But I think the Taylor appointment is really interesting 'cause it does illustrate him trying to thread the needle and maybe not succeeding. But maybe that was what his intent was.

Kornacki: It seems that where this has all sort of shaken out in terms of his standing in the administration then (at least, you know, Pompeo's standing with Trump), it seems he's in Trump's good graces. I say this because you've got this situation out in Kansas. There's an open Senate seat up for election in 2020. A couple of Republicans out there are already running.

There's this big fear sort of in the Republican establishment that Kris Kobach, he's the former Secretary of State in Kansas. He ran for governor out there last year. Actually lost as a Republican in Kansas, a bit of a controversial figure.

There's a fear among Republicans he'll win the primary and maybe possibly potentially put that Senate seat at risk in the general election. And so there was Trump last week on Fox & Friends basically floating the idea of Pompeo, former congressman from Kansas, going back and running for that seat. There's been some speculation Pompeo might be interested.

Donald Trump: And he came to me and said, "Look, I'd rather stay where I am." But he loves Kansas. He loves the people of Kansas. If he thought there was a chance of losing that seat, I think he would do that. And he would win in a landslide because they love him in Kansas.

Kornacki: And tell me if I'm wrong here. That told me that Pompeo still seems to have Trump's confidence. I guess this is the question for you, too. Is that a live possibility, that Pompeo might step down in the near future and go back to running for office?

De Luce: Absolutely. It is very much a live possibility. And it's no secret that he's interested. And it really probably would be his for the taking. He probably would have a really good chance of winning that seat. Now, Trump's comment, you never know how to interpret some of the President's suggestions.

You know, on the one hand, it's a compliment. It's also a way of showing him the door politely. Because no question the rapport and the relationship he had with the President earlier has been diminished absolutely. And there are many, many indications of that.

And, yes, Pompeo has not publicly defended some of these diplomats testifying. But he also hasn't necessarily always come to the defense of Trump or Giuliani's agenda in such a public way always. So there's no question there's friction there now.

Kornacki: So perhaps in trying to please both sides, he ends up irritating both sides on this. You mentioned the condition of the State Department when Pompeo came in, when Tillerson was leaving. If Pompeo does leave here to run for Senate in Kansas or for any other reason, if he were to leave, how would you describe the condition of the State Department now?

De Luce: Things are not good. I think that would be a fair statement. There are very few people in the building who will say that things are looking bright and rosy. Now, of course, it's a bureaucracy of thousands of people, and not everyone's affected of course. But there's no question that morale has been damaged.

And of course morale was already low before Pompeo took over. So there's a whole number of things happening here. First of all, there's an inordinate number of vacancies. Many, many positions have not been filled. So you have acting people in a lot of roles.

Then you had an exodus of senior diplomats, mainly early in the administration, including a number of women, a number of minorities. And then there's another data point here. The number of young people who are taking the Foreign Service Exam, it's a very difficult exam, to try to get into the Foreign Service, that number has dropped.

So the pool of people applying has declined. And then I think in the end though what's really the key here is watching and hearing this testimony from these experienced career diplomats who are very nonpartisan figures and having to hear and see what happened, where these diplomats were seeing this irregular, you know, shadow foreign policy being carried out where the professionals weren't being consulted and maybe even being undermined. So I think a combination of all of that has really damaged the outlook for people who work over there.

Kornacki: And, Dan, so many times I've been asking you in this interview, "What does Pompeo say about this? What's his answer to that?" And the answer comes back that we just haven't heard much from him. We haven't heard a real full, thorough accounting of all of this. I'm curious what your sense is. Are we going to hear something more comprehensive from him before this impeachment is over? Will Democrats seek to compel that from him? Or is what he has said so far going to stand?

De Luce: I am sure that somewhere, at some time he will want to have his say. And maybe that will come when he leaves and goes to run for the seat in Kansas. But in the meantime, he's being accused of obstruction by the Democrats because the State Department has refused to hand over a lot of documents, has really refused to cooperate for the most part.

And it is ironic. This is the guy who ran the Benghazi inquiry as a congressman and demanded large amounts of documents and testimony from everyone, including the Secretary of State at the time, Hillary Clinton. Clinton testified for many hours. And hundreds of thousands of documents were handed over. So people have pointed out there's a certain contradiction here. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: Dan De Luce, national security and global affairs reporter for the investigative unit at NBC News. Dan, thank you for joining us.

De Luce: Thank you.

Kornacki: And there's some other news buzzing around the impeachment inquiry that we are watching this week. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee who has been a central figure in these impeachment hearings, reportedly played a direct role in efforts to dig up dirt on Joe Biden in Ukraine. That is according to Lev Parnas, one of Rudy Giuliani's associates in the Ukrainian pressure campaign. He was indicted last month for campaign finance charges. When asked about the accusation on Fox News over the weekend--

Maria Bartiromo: Were you in Vienna with Shokin?

Kornacki: --Nunes had this to say.

Devin Nunes: Yeah. So, look, Maria, I really want to answer all of these questions. And I promise you I absolutely will come back on the show and answer these questions. But because there is criminal activity here, we're working with the appropriate law enforcement agencies. We're gonna file all this. Everyone's gonna know the truth. Everybody's gonna know all the facts. But I think you can understand that I can't compete by trying to debate this out with the public media when 90% of the media are totally corrupt.

Kornacki: Parnas says he is willing to tell Congress what he knows as part of the impeachment inquiry. That is a story we will be following closely as it unfolds. Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Wednesday.