Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed that he was on President Donald Trump's controversial phone call with Ukraine's new president on July 25, days after evading questions about what he knew of the call that has sparked a congressional investigation and an impeachment inquiry.
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"I was on the phone call," he said during a news conference in Rome on Wednesday.
During the call, Trump repeatedly asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to work with Rudy Giuliani to investigate his political opponents, which was part of the basis for a whistle-blower complaint from a U.S. intelligence official.
Pompeo had previously dodged questions about the call. On ABC's "This Week" on Sept. 22 he told co-anchor Martha Raddatz, "You just gave me a report about an [intelligence community] whistle-blower complaint, none of which I've seen." During a press conference at the U.N. General Assembly last Thursday, he said he had only read "the first couple of paragraphs" of the complaint, which had been released that day. The Wall Street Journal on Monday first reported he was on the call.
Pompeo is engaged in an escalating standoff with the Democratic chairs of three House committees who are investigating the State Department's role in Giuliani's effort. The Oversight, Intelligence, and Foreign Affairs committees in the House have subpoenaed Pompeo and the department for documents and scheduled depositions with five State Department officials, but Pompeo rebuffed those efforts Tuesday.
Asked Wednesday whether he heard anything improper, Pompeo said the call was "in the context of" the Trump administration's "remarkably consistent" Ukraine policy -- to counter the Russian threat to Ukraine, help "the Ukrainians to get graft out, and corruption outside of their government, and to help now this new government in Ukraine build a successful, thriving economy."
Pompeo said the administration "will continue to do [that] even while all this noise is going on," seemingly a reference to Congress's investigation of the call and the whistle-blower complaint.
The State Department has become increasingly involved in the controversy, with two ambassadors facilitating Giuliani's contacts with Ukrainian officials and news that Pompeo was on the call.
Five State Department officials have been scheduled for depositions for their roles: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe George Kent, State Department Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and Kurt Volker, the Special Envoy for Ukraine who helped put Giuliani in touch with Zelenskiy's aides at their request and resigned Friday. In a letter to the House Tuesday, Pompeo argued there were "profound procedural and legal deficiencies" around the depositions and they were "not feasible."
"What we objected to was the demands that were put that are -- deeply violate fundamental principles of separation of powers," Pompeo added Wednesday in Rome. He said the committees reached out directly to the five officials and told them State Department lawyers could not be present during their depositions, which he argued was in violation of the administration's executive privilege and threatened diplomatic relations.
He added, "We will of course do our constitutional duty to cooperate with this co-equal branch, but we are going to do so in a way that is consistent with the fundamental values of the American system, and we won't tolerate folks on Capitol Hill bullying and intimidating State Department employees."
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Adam Schiff, D-Calif., challenged that argument in a written response Tuesday. Addressed to Pompeo's deputy, John Sullivan, the three chairs wrote that Pompeo had an "obvious conflict of interest" and may be "trying to cover up illicit activity and misconduct, including by the President."
They warned the State Department that it must comply with their requests for documents and depositions, which congressional rules stipulate does not include department lawyers. If not, the department could face penalties for obstructing their impeachment inquiry, they added, including fines, five years of jail, or withholding an official's salary.
It's unclear when, if ever, Brechbuhl, Kent, or Sondland will appear for their depositions. But a House Intelligence Committee official told ABC News Tuesday that Volker has agreed to sit for his Thursday, while Yovanovitch, scheduled to appear Wednesday, will come in on October 11.
Ambassador Yovanovitch was recalled from Kyiv in the spring after advocating for anti-corruption measures, but being accused by Giuliani as obstructing investigations into Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. In the July 25 call, Trump called her "bad news," although the State Department had previously defended her from those accusations, which it called an "outright fabrication."
Pompeo said last Thursday that the behavior of all State Department officials was "entirely appropriate and consistent with the objective" of Trump's Ukraine policy. He was asked again Wednesday if he believes that is the case, but didn't respond to that part of the question.