State Dept IG to Congress: We need to meet about Ukraine -- urgently

What’s the rush? Last night, Inspector General Steve Linick requested an “urgent” meeting with the chairs of several House committees regarding issues related to Ukraine. The State Department watchdog’s request appears related to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s rebuke to House demands for testimony and threats of legal action without following formal subpoena processes. It might also involve allegations of a conflict of interest.

The Washington Post reported it last night in a passive voice:

The State Department inspector general and two former state officials agreed to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told House Democrats on Tuesday that State Department officials scheduled to appear this week for depositions before committees conducting the impeachment inquiry would not show up.

Pompeo’s refusal, relayed in a letter, came amid tweets from President Trump, including one questioning why he is not “entitled to interview & learn everything about” a whistleblower whose identity is protected by federal statute.

Axios reports it in a more active voice, claiming that Linick initiated the meeting and has significant concerns driving it:

State Department Inspector General Steve Linick has requested to meet Wednesday with a number of Senate and House committees “to discuss and provide staff with copies of documents related to the State Department and Ukraine,” according to a letter first reported by the Washington Post.

Why it matters: The details of the “urgent” briefing are unknown, but the news follows an escalating war of words between Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and key House committees investigating President Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.

  • On Tuesday, the chairs of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees rebuked Pompeo for attempting to block State Department officials from testifying, accusing him of “stonewalling.”
  • The Wall Street Journal and others reported on Monday that Pompeo was on the now-infamous phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s president, leading the committees to label Pompeo a “fact witness” in their impeachment investigation.
  • Former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who resigned last week, confirmed Tuesday that he would appear for a deposition before the committees later this week. 4 other current or former State Department officials are scheduled to testify in the next 2 weeks, but they have not yet confirmed.

Linick will be a busy man. According to a report by CNN’s Manu Raju, Linick will meet with the House and Senate committees on foreign affairs/relations and intelligence, House Oversight, Senate Homeland Security, and, er … the appropriations committees of both chambers. If that seems odd, remember that one of the issues in this controversy is why aid to Ukraine that was approved by Congress got delayed in being delivered to Kyiv. The implication is that it was connected to Trump’s desire to dig up dirt on the Bidens, one of the topics in the Zelensky call.

Pompeo finally did confirm this morning that he was on the Zelensky call, after playing coy for the past week about it:

“I was on the phone call,” Pompeo said Wednesday during a news conference in Rome with Italy’s foreign minister.

Pompeo was asked if he heard anything on the call that gave him any concerns or raised a red flag.

“I’d been a secretary of state for coming on a year and a half. I know precisely what the American policy is with respect to Ukraine. It’s been remarkably consistent, and we will continue to try to drive those set of outcomes,” Pompeo said.

It hardly seems surprising that the Secretary of State would have been one of the people on hand monitoring a presidential call to another head of government. It would have been surprising if Pompeo hadn’t been on the call. So why play coy? The generous take: Pompeo likely wanted to steer clear of a conflict between the House and Donald Trump and conduct State business as normally as possible under the circumstances. The less-generous take: Pompeo knew the conversation was problematic (if not actionable) and wanted to avoid being put in the position he was in today in defending it.

The least-generous take would be that Pompeo has some knowledge of what Rudy Giuliani was doing in Ukraine on Trump’s behalf and some knowledge of whether that was connected to the delay in aid to Kyiv. If that’s what the IG is sharing today on Capitol Hill, then this might get ugly for Pompeo and Trump very quickly. That might also explain why Giuliani lawyered up yesterday. All of these might also be coincidences too, but if so, they’re certainly curious coincidences.

Otherwise, Pompeo was correct in his letter back to Congress about their high-handed demands from State Department employees. The House certainly has the authority to demand testimony, but they do not have the authority to strip witnesses of legal counsel and the executive branch of their own prerogatives in dealing with the legislature. This controversy is escalating quickly on both sides to the detriment of credibility on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Perhaps the IG will end up providing a kind of deus ex machina intercession to restore order.