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Pompeo To Visit Ukraine Which Is Caught Up In U.S. Politics


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to Ukraine this week. It is the country at the center of President Trump's impeachment trial. During an interview last week, Pompeo bristled at questions about Ukraine from NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. And afterward, he told her Americans don't care about Ukraine. So why is he going? One of our most experienced reporters is on this story, NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. Michele, good morning.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Is there an argument that Americans should care about Ukraine?

KELEMEN: Well, there was a New York Times op-ed this week that said, yes, Secretary Pompeo, Americans should care about Ukraine. It was written by Bill Taylor, who was, until recently, the acting ambassador there and was among those who testified in the impeachment hearings. He writes in that op-ed, and this is a quote from it, "Ukraine is defending itself and the West against Russian attack. If Ukraine succeeds, we succeed." So he pointed out that the Russian-led forces are still fighting Ukrainians in the east of the country. And he says that Ukraine is also on the front lines of an information war as Russia tries to weaken Western alliances.

INSKEEP: OK, now, we mentioned Pompeo's one statement about Ukraine. What else has he said about it?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, he's always said that the policy is to support Ukraine, to push back against Russian aggression, the - that the Trump administration has given Javelin, you know, antitank weapons to Ukraine. And the top State Department official briefing us on this trip said basically that the - that this idea of the visit is to show support - unwavering support for Ukraine.

But, remember; this secretary is always careful not to say anything that would kind of upset his boss, especially now during this impeachment process. The president is accused of abusing his power, holding up military aid to Ukraine in exchange for investigations that could help him politically. Ukraine's president has tried to steer clear of this whole domestic situation, too. So that's one thing going in Pompeo's favor this week - that both he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy want this visit to go well.

INSKEEP: Now, the president is also accused of unfairly throwing out the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. And that Pompeo interview on NPR got so difficult at the moment when Pompeo was asked if he had ever defended Marie Yovanovitch, and he didn't really answer at all. And over the last few days, we've also heard about audio recordings of the president himself saying he wanted Yovanovitch fired, some indications that she was being tracked. Is the State Department investigating all of this?

KELEMEN: Pompeo himself has been very, very quiet about this, but I've been told that a diplomatic security team was out in Kyiv at the embassy looking into all this. The Ukrainians have opened an investigation, so we might hear more about that this week.

And as for Yovanovitch, you know, she testified that she was facing a disinformation campaign. Pompeo did not publicly support her, has not throughout all of this ordeal, but I've heard that he did privately kind of fend off the pressure for a while. Remember; this push to take her out, as the president was caught on tape saying, started a year before she was recalled.

INSKEEP: Is Pompeo unable to talk about that private support because of what you said earlier - he can't say anything or doesn't want to say anything to cross the president?

KELEMEN: Well, that's the sense I'm getting, though there's a lot of anger in the State Department about that. And I should also remind you that Trump has not named a new ambassador. The embassy is run by a career diplomat at the moment. Bill Taylor left, and I'm told Pompeo didn't want him in any of his meetings in Kyiv.

INSKEEP: She's one of our best. NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen, thanks.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.