KYIV, UKRAINE — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo faced a delicate balancing act as he began a two-day visit to Ukraine on Thursday, trying to boost U.S. ties with a critical ally that is at the heart of the impeachment trial while not providing fodder for Democrats seeking to oust President Donald Trump.
Pompeo's visit comes as the Senate prepares to vote on whether to hear witnesses who could shed further light on Trump's actions toward Ukraine.
Pompeo is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country and meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy since the impeachment process began last year with revelations about a July 25 phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian leader.
Trump is accused of obstructing Congress and abuse of office for withholding critical military aid to the country in exchange for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival, and his son Hunter.
Ukraine has been an unwilling star in the impeachment proceedings, eager for good relations with Trump as it depends heavily on U.S. support to defend itself from Russian-backed separatists. Trump, who has still not granted Zelenskiy the White House meeting he craves, has offered that support to some degree. Although the military assistance was put on hold, it was eventually released after a whistleblower complaint brought the July 25 call to light. The Trump administration has also supplied Ukraine with lethal defense equipment, including Javelin anti-tank weapons.
Pompeo is likely to stress the importance of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, a sentiment long shared by Republicans and Democrats who see the former Soviet republic as a bulwark against Russian ambitions. But it's a view that now has partisan overtones, with Democrats arguing that withholding aid from such a critical ally for political purposes is an impeachable offense.
The Senate is expected to vote on hearing impeachment witnesses on Friday. Democrats want to hear from former national security adviser John Bolton, whose forthcoming book reportedly says that Trump withheld the aid in exchange for a public pledge of a probe into the Bidens. That would back witnesses who testified before the House impeachment inquiry.
Ukraine has been a delicate subject for Pompeo, who over the weekend lashed out at a National Public Radio reporter for asking why he has not publicly defended the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. She was removed from her post after unsubstantiated allegations were made against her by Trump's personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani.
Pompeo has been criticized for not publicly supporting Yovanovitch, her now-departed successor as chief of the Kyiv embassy, William Taylor, and other diplomats who testified before House impeachment investigators. Yovanovitch and Taylor have been attacked by Trump supporters and, in some cases, have been accused of disloyalty.
In the NPR interview, Pompeo took umbrage when asked if he owed Yovanovitch an apology and maintained that he had defended all of his employees. In an angry encounter after the interview, he also questioned if Americans actually cared about Ukraine, according to NPR.
That comment prompted Taylor and Pompeo's former special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, who also testified to the impeachment panel, to write opinion pieces discussing the importance of the country to U.S. national security and why Pompeo should be explaining its role to Americans as their top diplomat.
Pompeo brushed aside his reported comment, telling reporters aboard his plane that "of course, the American people care about the people of Ukraine" and said his message to American diplomats in Ukraine would be the same he gives to those at other embassies.
"The message is very similar to every embassy that I get a chance to talk to when I travel," he said. "I almost always meet with the team and tell them how much we love them, appreciate them, appreciate their family members and their sacrifice."
He said he would "talk about the important work that the United States and Ukraine will continue to do together to fight corruption inside of that country and to ensure that America provides the support that the Ukrainian people need to ensure that they have a free and independent nation."
Pompeo twice postponed earlier planned trips to Ukraine, most recently in early January when developments with Iran forced him to cancel. Pompeo said he plans to discuss the issue of corruption but demurred when asked if he would specifically raise the Bidens or the energy company Burisma for which Hunter Biden worked.
"I don't want to talk about particular individuals. It's not worth it," he told reporters. "It's a long list in Ukraine of corrupt individuals and a long history there. And President Zelenskiy has told us he's committed to it. The actions he's taken so far demonstrate that, and I look forward to having a conversation about that with him as well."
Pompeo traveled to Kyiv from London, which was the first stop on a trip to Europe and Central Asia that will also take him to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.