WASHINGTON — Since the investigation began into President Trump's machinations in Ukraine, one of the most disturbing questions has been: Where's Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who's supposed to shield his diplomats from political interference?
And now we have the answer: Pompeo in recent months has essentially been in hiding, protecting himself while his subordinates took the hit — evidently hoping to preserve his influence with Trump. Sometimes his deflections and denials have been outright misleading.
Pompeo has badly tarnished his reputation in accommodating Trump. He joins the long list of those damaged by their service to this president. If you're someone like me who thought Pompeo was one of the smarter and more effective people in the administration, it's a sad moment.
This harsh judgment is nearly inescapable after reading the transcripts released Monday of testimony from two key State Department officials: Marie Yovanovitch, a 33-year foreign service veteran Trump fired in May as ambassador to Ukraine; and Michael McKinley, a 37-year veteran, who resigned in October as Pompeo's senior adviser because "the disparagement of a career diplomat [Yovanovitch] doing her job was unacceptable to me."
At the core of Pompeo's story is the conundrum of what public service means under an erratic president like Trump. Pompeo's defenders argue that he might serve his personal interest by resigning and protecting what's left of his political career. But would that be the honorable choice, they ask, if it would mean abandoning the State Department to even greater chaos?
A similar dilemma vexed former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis for two years. He stayed silent in public over Trump's tantrums and abuses, hoping that in private he could prevent even worse catastrophes. But in the end, this strategy of accommodation wasn't tenable; the rucksack became too heavy, and Mattis resigned in December.
Pompeo's defenders argue that his story is more complicated than it appears. They say that through 2018 and early 2019, as Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani was spinning malicious falsehoods to undermine Yovanovitch, Pompeo had a senior deputy press Giuliani for evidence to support his charges. Giuliani never produced any, and Yovanovitch stayed — until Trump personally demanded she be fired, and Pompeo acceded.
In the lead-up to her firing and following the publicity over her dismissal, Yovanovitch kept asking for support from her bosses. That was especially so after Donald Trump Jr. tweeted in March that she was a "joker" who should be sacked. But Pompeo was mum.
"What I was told was that there was concern that the rug would be pulled out from underneath the State Department if they put out something publicly," Yovanovitch testified.
In late April, she was ordered home. Acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker told her that "the secretary had tried to protect me but was no longer able to do that," and Deputy Secretary John Sullivan informed her she was fired. "I said, 'What have I done wrong?' And he said, 'You've done nothing wrong.'"
Pompeo didn't explain or apologize. His counselor Thomas Ulrich Brechbuhl refused Yovanovitch's request for a meeting.
Trump's groundless attacks on Yovanovitch continued, as did Pompeo's silence. We learned months later that Pompeo had listened in on the infamous July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump asked for a political "favor" in exchange for sending Javelin missiles to Ukraine — and described Yovanovitch as "bad news," warning that she was "going to go through some things." Pompeo did nothing.
When a transcript of the menacing July call was released Sept. 25, Yovanovitch felt personally threatened, and she again asked for help. Pompeo said nothing public in her defense.
McKinley, the senior adviser, pressed Pompeo to issue a brief statement of support for Yovanovitch. "He listened. That was it. Sort of, 'thank you.' That was the limit of the conversation," McKinley testified. He went to see Pompeo twice more in the next few days, the last time to resign, telling Pompeo: "This situation isn't acceptable."
Pompeo told ABC News last month that "not once" did McKinley "say a single thing about his concerns" about Yovanovitch's treatment. By McKinley's sworn testimony, that statement was false.
What is character? It's hard to define, but as NPR's Scott Simon recently noted, a good, short summary is the West Point motto: "A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do."
We should be careful not to judge others' character, especially in the hotbox of today's Washington. But it's deeply troubling to see a powerful person like Pompeo who is silent in the face of lies, and who takes no action to protect his subordinates from wrongdoing.