Impeachment: Ex-Pompeo aide testifies about Ukraine as spotlight shines on Trump's foreign policy

Deirdre Shesgreen, Bart Jansen and Savannah Behrmann, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – P. Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, testified Wednesday before the House impeachment panel amid ongoing questions about the ouster of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a shadow foreign policy operation run by Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump's personal lawyer.

McKinley told lawmakers he quit his State Department position because of growing frustration with Pompeo's refusal to defend career diplomats who felt sidelined by Giuliani's pressure campaign in Ukraine, according to multiple media reports.

McKinley did not talk to reporters before or after his five-plus hours of testimony. He resigned from his post just last week, after a career that spanned decades and included posts as U.S. ambassador to Brazil and Afghanistan. 

The timing of McKinley's departure raised questions about Pompeo's role in the Ukraine controversy.

Giuliani had targeted the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, as he pressed the Ukrainian government to launch politically tinged investigations that could have helped Trump's re-election campaign. Trump yanked Yovanovitch from the ambassador's job before her tenure was up, and critics have blamed Pompeo for not defending her.

The Washington Post reported that McKinley's resignation came amid low morale within the State Department and concerns that Pompeo was not supporting those wrapped up in the controversy over Ukraine. Pompeo denied the allegations in an interview last week with The Tennessean

"I protect every single State Department employee," Pompeo said. "It’s one of the reasons that we asked the House of Representatives to stop their abusive prosecutions where they won’t let State Department lawyers sit with our employees. That’s not fair."

Michael McKinley, a former top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, to testify before congressional lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., declined to say if McKinley addressed Pompeo’s role in the Ukraine matter. But he said, “from the public record, it’s very clear that Secretary Pompeo has been obstructing information, directing witnesses not to come to Congress."

"I think Secretary Pompeo needs to put duty, honor and country first, instead of protecting a corrupt president," Lieu said.

Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., said McKinley talked more about his experience at the State Department during Pompeo’s tenure than about the particular details of the Ukraine controversy. Rouda and others declined to say what McKinkley told them about his decision to resign.

Republicans complained about Democrats holding private depositions, argued that hearings should be public and said lawmakers from any committee should be allowed to attend. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, called Schiff's approach "laughable" and said he couldn't discuss McKinley's testimony.

"But once again, we have these secretive interviews in the basement of the Capitol, that members aren't even allowed to walk into," Jordan said.

More: Republicans complain about limited access to closed-door House impeachment investigation sessions

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., said it wasn’t shocking that McKinley left the State Department because he was planning to retire before the end of the year. Zeldin said little first-hand information resulted from the questioning and accused Democrats of trying to put words in McKinley's mouth.

“So Ambassador McKinley was very passionate about a lot that improved, that has improved under Secretary Pompeo, and it was directly contradictory to the way the questions were being framed of him,” Zeldin said.

Zeldin said the president can recall any ambassador, such as Yovanovitch, at any time for any reason. But he said such as removal doesn’t justify impeachment.

“It is 100% within the president’s authority,” Zeldin said.

Also on Wednesday, Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine who testified before the committees Oct. 3, was seen entering the committee offices. Volker resigned in late September after revelations about his role in helping Giuliani contact Ukraine officials including top advisers to President Volodymyr Zelensky. Volker returned Wednesday to review the transcript of his testimony, according to a source.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declared a formal impeachment inquiry Sept. 24 after reports about Trump's call July 25 to Zelensky, to urge an investigation of his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Three committees – Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform – have focused on Trump's dealings with Ukraine by interviewing former officials such as McKinley and Volker.

But Trump has vowed to fight what he describes as a partisan and unconstitutional witch hunt, for lack of a House vote authorizing the investigation. The administration notified Pelosi Oct. 8 that it would no longer cooperate with demands for documents and testimony. Trump contends that he was absolutely justified in urging the investigation of corruption in Ukraine.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Impeachment: Michael McKinley testifies in Ukraine probe