Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky sidestepped questions Friday in Kyiv over whether the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has strained relations between the United States and Ukraine.
Pompeo became this week the first official from Trump’s cabinet to meet with Zelensky since the impeachment inquiry began last fall. Trump briefly met Zelensky on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
During a joint news conference in Ukraine’s capital, Pompeo described Ukraine as a “bulwark between freedom and authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.” He said Ukraine has the U.S.’s full support and brushed off questions about his role in the Trump administration’s Ukraine pressure campaign. Pompeop said that more than $1 billion in U.S. military aid and security assistance to Ukraine since 2017 would continue.
“It’s less about what is said, and more about what is actually done,” Pompeo said, as he stood alongside Zelensky in Ukraine’s Presidential Administration.
“Today I’m here with a clear message: The United States sees that the Ukrainian struggle for freedom, democracy and prosperity is a valiant one.”
Zelensky said he was ready to meet with Trump in an official White House visit, but that no visit had been scheduled yet. “We’ll find the right time,” he said. “I don’t think these friendly and warm relations have been influenced by the impeachment trial of the president,” he said, when asked by a reporter about whether the impeachment inquiry into Trump had negatively affected relations between Kyiv and Washington.
Pompeo arrived in Ukraine on Thursday at a particularly awkward time for him – and for the Trump administration, which is consumed with allegations that the president tried to pressure Zelensky for political favors. Trump temporarily froze nearly $400 million in U.S. security aid shortly prior speaking with Zelenskiy in a phone call in July. The move prompted accusations from Democrats that he misused U.S. foreign policy for personal gain. The Senate is weighing those allegations in its unfolding impeachment trial.
Pompeo’s recent statements about Ukraine have complicated his mission in Kyiv and exacerbated an already strained U.S.-Ukraine alliance. The State Department said Pompeo’s trip would highlight American support for Ukraine’s sovereignty as it battles Russian aggression, a messaged reiterated by Pompeo on Friday.
But the U.S. has no ambassador in Kyiv right now – in part because of the impeachment scandal – and Pompeo recently suggested that Americans don’t care about Ukraine. During a contentious interview with NPR last week, Pompeo grew irritated with host Mary Louise Kelly when she pressed him about Ukraine. After the interview, Kelly said Pompeo shouted and cursed at her.
“‘Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?'” Pompeo yelled, according to Kelly’s account, the substance of which Pompeo has not disputed. “He used the F-word in that sentence and many others.”
On Wednesday, Pompeo sidestepped questions about whether he would ask Zelensky in private about the two issues at the heart of the impeachment trial now unfolding in the Senate: former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian gas company.
Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Biden, a leading 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. Biden’s son Hunter served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, while his father was vice president. Trump and his allies have made unsubstantiated claims that Joe Biden tried to shield Burisma from scrutiny.
Asked if he would raise the Biden-Burisma allegations with Zelensky, Pompeo did not directly answer. He said he would focus on helping Ukraine root out “corruption” and repel Russian attacks.
“When we were talking about corruption, we talked about every element of corruption inside of Ukraine,” Pompeo told reporters traveling with him on the trip, which includes other stops in Europe and Central Asia. “I don’t want to talk about particular individuals. It’s not worth it. It’s a long list in Ukraine of corrupt individuals and a long history there.”
Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he’d be shocked if Pompeo pressed Zelensky on such politically explosive issues.
“I would think he’d be extremely cautious in his meeting with Zelensky,” said Miller, who has advised Republican and Democratic presidents on foreign policy.