WASHINGTON — The impeachment inquiry has created the first rift between President Donald Trump and the Cabinet member who has been his closest ally, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, according to four current and former senior administration officials.
Trump has fumed for weeks that Pompeo is responsible for hiring State Department officials whose congressional testimony threatens to bring down his presidency, the officials said. The president confronted Pompeo about the officials — and what he believed was a lackluster effort by the secretary of state to block their testimony — during lunch at the White House on Oct. 29, those familiar with the matter said.
Inside the White House, the view was that Trump “just felt like, ‘rein your people in,’” a senior administration official said.
Trump particularly blames Pompeo for tapping Ambassador Bill Taylor in June to be the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, the current and former senior administration officials said.
Taylor has provided the House Intelligence Committee with some of the most damaging details on the White House’s effort to pressure Ukraine into investigating one of the president’s potential rivals in the 2020 election, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter Biden.
A crack in the seemingly unbreakable bond between Trump and Pompeo is striking because Pompeo, a former Kansas congressman, is viewed as the “Trump whisperer” who has survived — and thrived — working for a president who has routinely tired of and discarded senior members of his team.
But the impeachment inquiry has put Pompeo in what one senior administration official described as an untenable position: trying to manage a bureaucracy of 75,000 people that has soured on his leadership and also please a boss with outsized expectations of loyalty.
“He feels like he's getting a bunch of blame from the president and the White House for having hired all these people who are turning against Trump,” an official familiar with the dynamic said of Pompeo, “and that it's the State Department that is going to bring him down, so it's all Pompeo's fault.”
Neither the White House nor the State Department responded to requests for comment.
Four current State Department officials have testified before the House Intelligence Committee.
Three of them — Taylor, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary at the State Department in charge of Europe — appeared before the committee last week to deliver the first public testimony in Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. All three of them currently remain employed by the State Department, though Yovanovitch has been sidelined to a teaching post at Georgetown University.
Taylor was dining in the State Department cafeteria the day after he testified, over the administration’s objections, and was surrounded by employees expressing support for him, according to two people who saw him there.
Kurt Volker, who was the State Department’s envoy on Ukraine until last month, was the first official to testify. He resigned about a week before his Oct. 3 deposition, during which he turned over reams of text messages detailing the White House’s Ukraine pressure campaign.
Trump has hinted publicly at tensions with Pompeo, and while the comments might go unnoticed by the untrained ear they’ve been heard loudly by people close to the president.
The first was on Oct. 23, officials said, when Trump wrote on Twitter: “It would be really great if the people within the Trump Administration, all well-meaning and good (I hope!), could stop hiring Never Trumpers, who are worse than the Do Nothing Democrats. Nothing good will ever come from them!”
Trump followed up with another tweet specifically calling Taylor, and his lawyer, "Never Trumpers."
Two days later, Trump said Pompeo “made a mistake” in hiring Taylor.
“Here’s the problem: He's a never Trumper, and his lawyer is,” the president told reporters about Taylor. “The other problem is — hey, everyone makes mistakes — Mike Pompeo. Everybody makes mistakes.”
The next day, Oct. 26, Pompeo was notably absent as the president sat with his national security team during the U.S. military raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Pompeo was not informed about the raid until late Friday after he was home in Kansas for his son’s friend’s wedding, officials said.
Throughout the impeachment inquiry, Pompeo and Trump have maintained their weekly lunches at the White House, according to the president’s public schedule.
But the president was angry when he arrived in his private dining room on Oct. 29, two officials said. Pompeo defended himself, officials said, by telling Trump he doesn’t know who half of these State Department officials are, officials said. He also noted that there are thousands of employees at the agency, explaining that he can’t control them, those familiar with the matter said.
One official said Trump and Pompeo patched things up during the lunch. Another person familiar with the meeting said Pompeo continues to be “iced out” by the president, a shift that often entails still being included in his meetings but listened to less.
“Pompeo feels under siege,” this person said.
He was at the White House last Wednesday for Trump’s meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The tension with Trump comes as Pompeo weighs whether to leave the administration to run for Kansas’ open Senate seat.
Pompeo has served in the administration since its start. Trump tapped him as CIA director, then moved him to secretary of state after he fired Pompeo’s predecessor, Rex Tillerson. For almost three years, Pompeo seamlessly navigated a finicky president. He’s remained, and became more influential, as Trump churned through two chiefs of staff, three national security advisers, an attorney general, and secretaries of defense, state, labor, homeland security, interior, veterans affairs and health and human services.
But in recent weeks Pompeo has been under steady fire over his role in the Ukraine scandal, as well as his handling of it.
Initially when the Ukraine controversy became public, Trump wanted Pompeo to publicly defend him against the State Department bureaucracy, officials said. But the White House thought Pompeo appeared unprepared in his television interviews, and his performance only fueled the president’s frustrations, they said.
Pompeo has faced criticism for saying, during an interview on ABC’s “This Week,” that he didn’t know anything about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that is at the center of the controversy. Pompeo didn’t disclose until more than a week later that he had listened in on that call.
Like the White House, he has attempted to block State Department officials from testifying. And he has refused to turn over State Department documents related to Ukraine.
His decision last week, however, to allow the State Department to help pay for the legal fees that officials ensnared in the impeachment inquiry are accruing could further strain his relationship with the president.
That decision underscores the balance Pompeo is trying to strike between the president and the department he leads.
State Department officials had thought Pompeo’s move to the agency in April 2018 would be a welcome antidote to what they viewed as the bureaucratic fecklessness of Tillerson, given Pompeo’s unfettered access to Trump and their close relationship.
But morale at the State Department has sagged for months, and it plummeted further as the Ukraine scandal unfolded, according to multiple officials.
State Department officials are critical of Pompeo for buckling to pressure from the president and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and abruptly recalling Yovanovitch while she was serving as U.S. ambassador in Ukraine. Yovanovitch had been vilified by Giuliani, who convinced the president she was working against his interests.
Criticism of Pompeo inside the State Department escalated when he refused to publicly defend Yovanovitch after a reconstructed transcript of the July 25 call revealed Trump disparaged Yovanovitch to Zelenskiy, administration officials have said. Pompeo’s closest aide, Ambassador Mike McKinley, resigned over the secretary’s refusal to defend Yovanovitch.
Testimony from Taylor and others show Pompeo was keenly aware of the concerns his top officials had about Giuliani’s efforts and his handling of Yovanovitch.
In public testimony on Friday, Yovanovitch appeared to excoriate Pompeo for “the failure of State Department leadership to push back as foreign and corrupt interests apparently hijacked our Ukraine policy.”
“It is the responsibility of the department's leaders to stand up for the institution and the individuals who make that institution the most effective diplomatic force in the world,” she said.
According to administration officials, Pompeo’s refusal to publicly defend Yovanovitch cemented a wider view within the State Department that he has enabled some of Trump’s impulsive foreign policy decisions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. special forces from Syria after a phone call with Turkey’s Erdgoan.
“Pompeo is hated by his building,” a person close to the secretary said, adding that he “feels the heat a great deal and feels it’s personal at state.”