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Under scrutiny from lawmakers, Pompeo dismisses concerns about politics, morale

On Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to respond to concerns about the status of the State Department. Lawmakers have questioned widespread department vacancies and whether career diplomats are being sidelined, as well as the dismissal of an inspector general and Pompeo’s own conduct. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to concerns about the department that he runs during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    Nick Schifrin was watching. And he joins us now.

    So, Nick, what are those concerns? And tell us how Secretary Pompeo is responding to them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, congressional Democrats, former senior officials and even some mid-level current State Department officials describe to me a State Department in which Pompeo and his allies are protected and career officials can sometimes be sidelined.

    The staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released a report this week detailing four concerns, number one vacancies, 11. More than a third of senior positions are vacant or filled by acting officials.

    Declining morale and confidence in leadership, as measured by the State Department's own employee data. Increased fear of reprisal for employees who report suspected violations of the law and — quote — "disrespect and disdain" shown by political appointees toward career employees.

    On that last point, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia challenged Pompeo over the case of Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who was fired by President Trump after a campaign against her led by Rudy Giuliani that included false statements about her.

  • Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.:

    When somebody works for their entire career for the State Department, and they are slandered with lies, and sacked for no good reason, that sends a message that could not be clearer to other State Department officials.

    And it may be just a big joke. I mean, hey, look at you smiling and laughing and calling it silly.

  • Sec. Mike Pompeo:

    Yes, I'm smiling — I'm smiling — I'm smiling…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sen. Tim Kaine:

    I don't think it's silly to Marie Yovanovitch or the people who work for you.

  • Sec. Mike Pompeo:

    I don't think it's silly to the United States Department of State to understand that every ambassador, every political appointee knows that, when the president of the United States finds that they lack confidence in you, the president has the right to terminate them.

    It's that easy. It includes me.

  • Man:

    Senator Paul…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Sec. Mike Pompeo:

    And you should note, I didn't slander anyone. I did — I did — this was handled appropriately and properly, Senator.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pompeo is right.

    He has never criticized Marie Yovanovitch publicly. In fact, Judy, senior officials around Pompeo say that he resisted Giuliani's campaign, at least for a few months. But he didn't go public, to avoid alienating President Trump.

    And that's the core of the criticism from former senior and current officials. They haven't heard the public defenses of career employees of the State Department that they need to hear. They also point out that only two and soon to be only one senior official is a career employee.

    As for that Senate Democratic staff report, the State Department sent me a statement earlier, accusing top committee Democrat Senator Bob Menendez of blocking some of the State Department's nominees and — quote — "Notwithstanding Senator Menendez's obstruction, the Trump administration has effectively delivered on its foreign policy goals for the American people, their safety and economic prosperity."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, we know that, just last month, President Trump fired the State Department inspector general. Steve Linick was his name.

    And I understand that came up today.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Democratic lawmakers accused Pompeo of firing Linick because Linick was looking into actions by Pompeo and his wife, Susan.

    Now, Linick acknowledged in recent testimony that he initiated an audit into Secretary Pompeo and Susan Pompeo for — quote — "the misuse of government resources."

    Linick also accused a senior Pompeo aid of — quote — "bullying" him into dropping a separate investigation.

    And that is backed up by a recent whistle-blower complaint. When a whistle-blower who witnessed misconduct requested clarification and guidance, they were blocked from doing so.

    Today, Judy, Pompeo repeated that he did not know Linick was investigating him or his wife. He accused Linick of — quote — "screwing up" the department's financial audit, and he accused Linick of leaking to the press.

  • Sec. Mike Pompeo:

    He didn't act with integrity throughout that process in a way that inspector generals have to be counted on to behave.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Linick recently testified that he — after he and other inspectors general were fired, he's heard that current inspectors general are — quote — "fearful of retribution" by this administration.

    And, Judy, I have been told the same by a current inspector general.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, something else that came up today, questions raised about Secretary Pompeo's travel inside the United States and dinners that he hosted at the State Department.

    What about all that?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Democratic lawmakers and former senior officials fear that Pompeo's travel was less about the State Department and more about his political ambitions.

    He's traveled multiple times to Kansas, to Iowa, to Florida. A senior State Department official tells me the travel was to recruit, to explain the department to the whole country. And this official points out that Pompeo's predecessors also traveled domestically.

    Judy, that is true, but former secretaries who traveled domestically extensively were traveling to their homes. The Pompeos, of course, live in D.C.

    The other concern from Democratic lawmakers and from senior officials that I have talked to is that these dinners hosted by Pompeo and his wife are more about collecting information from donors. A senior State Department official counters that, telling me that all former secretaries have dinner, and former Secretary Hillary Clinton once hosted a dinner at her home with donors to the Clinton Foundation who had business with the State Department.

    But the former officials I'm talking to say that those former secretaries had dinners about policy, and that these current dinners are about Pompeo's politics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Nick, it sounds like it was quite a hearing, with some fairly testy, testy moments.

    Thank you so much for following it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thanks very much.

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