Mike Pompeo was already expecting to navigate a political minefield when he landed in Kyiv next week.
But after the secretary of State’s explosion at a respected NPR journalist, his trip just got a little more complicated.
Following a contentious radio interview in which Mary Louise Kelly asked several probing questions about Ukraine, America’s top diplomat shouted at length and swore at the “All Things Considered” host in his private living room at the State Department, she said in an emailed statement on Friday.
Pompeo then summoned aides to bring him a blank map, and demanded that she point out the location of Ukraine, a 230,000-square-mile expanse of land that straddles the geopolitical fault-line between Europe and Russia.
“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” he asked her—a question arguably insulting to Ukraine as well as Americans.
“He used the F-word in that sentence and many others,” said Kelly, who has a master’s degree in European studies from Cambridge University and said she correctly identified Ukraine.
On Saturday, Pompeo released a furious statement alleging that Kelly had lied to him by agreeing the post-interview conversation would be off the record, which NPR denies. Pompeo also implied that Kelly had picked out Bangladesh on the map instead of Ukraine.
NPR's Senior Vice President for News, Nancy Barnes, said in a statement: “Mary Louise Kelly has always conducted herself with the utmost integrity, and we stand behind this report.”
Even before Pompeo’s bizarre outburst, he faced a skeptical welcome in Ukraine—a country shaken by its role in the impeachment fracas in Washington and riven with anxiety about the future of U.S.-Ukraine ties, the hostile presence of Russia, and the simmering resentment inside a U.S. Embassy in Kyiv still reeling from the ouster of its previous ambassador.
Pompeo’s trip to Kyiv, slated to start Thursday, comes after a previously announced visit, set for the early days of January, was canceled amid spiraling tensions with Iran.
It also comes in the middle of President Donald Trump’s trial in the Senate on impeachment charges that he tried to bully Ukraine into investigating Democrats by withholding military aid along with an Oval Office visit by Ukraine’s president.
So Pompeo, whose own role in the impeachment scandal remains something of a mystery, faces a series of politically perilous questions:
Will he do enough to reassure Ukrainian leaders about U.S. support in their war with Russia? Will that include offering a date for the Oval Office visit that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has long sought?
Will Pompeo assuage U.S. diplomats in Ukraine who’ve been upset by his treatment of their embassy chiefs? And can he do all this without irking Trump, a president who rails against Ukraine in private and expresses sympathy toward its arch-enemy, Russia, in public?
Former U.S. officials and others who watch Ukraine are not optimistic that Pompeo’s visit will fundamentally reset a relationship badly damaged by the impeachment scandal. They agree, however, that the secretary of State showing up is better than nothing.
“It is the right thing to do,” Daniel Fried, a former U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Europe, said in an interview prior to the news of Pompeo’s blowup with NPR. “The Ukrainians need to hear from senior Americans. They need to hear that … we have their back. That we are supporting them.”
Pompeo’s stop in Kyiv is part of a multi-country tour that will also take him to Britain, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, according to the State Department. The trip runs from Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, the department said.
Pompeo plans to meet with top Ukrainian leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky “to highlight U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the State Department said. Pompeo also will attend a wreath-laying ceremony to honor Ukrainians who have died fighting Russia and meet with religious, civil society, and business leaders.
It’s customary for visiting U.S. secretaries of State to stop by the American embassy in their host country, and Pompeo is expected to follow that tradition.
But in a move that stung some members of the U.S. Foreign Service, William Taylor, the top diplomat at the embassy in Kyiv, was ordered to leave the post in early January, before Pompeo arrived, so that the secretary would not be captured in pictures with him, according to a person familiar with the issue.
Taylor, a veteran diplomat who served under multiple presidents, was hand-picked by Pompeo to replace former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump demanded be ousted from the role.
Yovanovitch was viewed by Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani as an obstacle in their efforts to pressure Ukraine’s government to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination this year.
This past week, ABC News reported on a recording of the president telling associates as far back as spring 2018 that he wanted Yovanovitch gone. “Get rid of her!" says a voice that sounded like Trump’s, according to ABC. “Get her out tomorrow. I don't care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.” The White House has not contested the authenticity of the recording, which has been turned over to House investigators.
Trump mentioned Yovanovitch on his infamous July 25, 2019 call with Zelensky—trashing his own ambassador in an extraordinary breach of diplomatic norms.
Yovanovitch was a key witness in the House impeachment inquiry. Her abrupt recall from Kyiv last year has infuriated U.S. diplomats with Pompeo. In his interview with NPR’s Kelly, he grew testy as she pressed him on why he’s never publicly defended Yovanovitch.
“I've defended every single person on this team. I've done what's right for every single person on this team,” Pompeo insisted.
Taylor also testified in the impeachment inquiry, offering damaging information that upset the White House. That’s likely why Pompeo, who is extremely careful never to show any differences with Trump in public, wanted Taylor gone before he arrived.
In a call with reporters in late December, senior State Department officials sidestepped repeated questions about why Taylor was ordered out early and whether Pompeo would re-state Trump’s demands that Zelensky launch an investigation of Biden and his son, Hunter.
They insisted the Pompeo visit was about reinforcing America’s “steadfast” support for Ukraine, noting that Zelensky, who took office in May 2019, has made strides in implementing anti-corruption reforms.
“The focus of the secretary is Kyiv, Ukraine – our policy, our engagement there, our mission there – and so it’s much more than symbolic,” one senior State Department official said.
Ahead of the scuttled earlier visit, a Trump administration official told POLITICO that Trump was fine with Pompeo visiting Kyiv at the time, even though the impeachment process was ongoing.
The official said that the president, who briefly met Zelensky in New York during the U.N. General Assembly in September, has been impressed by the Ukrainian leader. Trump also is happy to see the resumption of peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, the official said. The two countries recently exchanged prisoners.
“The trend is positive,” the official said.
Former U.S. officials and analysts pointed out that a visit to Kyiv could be useful to Pompeo in promoting the Trump narrative that he’s done a lot to help Ukraine since taking office.
That includes beefing up the type of military aid the U.S. offers Ukraine to include more lethal weaponry. Trump’s supporters also point out that eventually the freeze on the nearly $400 million in military aid was lifted.
“This administration delivered the capability for the Ukrainians to defend themselves,” Pompeo told NPR’s Kelly, adding a familiar, albeit inaccurate jab at former President Barack Obama, who he said “showed up with MREs.” “We showed up with Javelin missiles. The previous administration did nothing to take down corruption in Ukraine. We're working hard on that. We're going to continue to do it.”
Pompeo is likely to stick to similar talking points while in Ukraine — stressing that Trump has done more for the country than his predecessor while dismissing questions about why Trump held up the aid in the first place.
There is no sign, however, that Pompeo will come bearing one thing Ukrainian leaders really want: a date for Zelensky to stop by the Oval Office. Trump extended a vague invitation to Zelensky last year, but the U.S. hasn’t followed up to Kyiv’s satisfaction.
Oval Office meetings are considered a major stamp of support for foreign leaders seeking to bolster their own domestic standing by pointing to the U.S. president as a partner.
When the pair met in New York in September, the Ukrainian president even joked about it: “You invited me,” he reminded Trump. “But I think — I’m sorry, but I think you forgot to tell me the date.”
Since then, Trump has hosted leaders from Turkey, Bulgaria and Paraguay, among others, at the White House. His visitors there even included Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
Even if Pompeo has no date to offer, his mere presence in Ukraine is a show of solidarity, current and former U.S. officials argue. Besides, Pompeo is considered closer to Trump than many other Cabinet officials and able to speak for him more than most.
Still, Pompeo could take additional steps beyond just showing up to further reassure his hosts.
One possibility is visiting with Ukrainian troops who are being trained by Americans. Another, more logistically challenging, idea, would be to visit the front lines in eastern Ukraine where Ukraine forces are battling Russian-backed separatists.
Pompeo could make promises of even more military and economic development aid to Ukraine, some analysts said. Another possibility: arriving with offers, or some good news, from American firms interested in purchasing a Ukranian aircraft engine maker known as Motor Sich.
The U.S. has urged the company to avoid a takeover by a Chinese firm, and Taylor, days before his departure, told local media that U.S. officials were helping Motor Sich find other investors.
It’s not entirely clear how much of Pompeo’s visit will be caught on camera or otherwise made public. His sessions with U.S. diplomats – if he has any – are likely to be behind closed doors.
But both he and the Ukrainians will share a desire to avoid talk of U.S. domestic politics, including impeachment, said Molly Montgomery, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who expertise in Europe.
“Both sides will have an incentive to keep the visit very much in traditional diplomatic lane and not let it veer into the political,” she said.