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Pompeo makes first trip to Ukraine amid heavy criticism and Trump impeachment trial

Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks(WASHINGTON) — While all eyes in Washington are on the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is heading to the country at the center of the scandal that led to deliberations in the Senate — Ukraine.Pompeo will make his first trip there later this week during his tour of Europe and Central Asia that became controversial after he removed a National Public Radio correspondent from the list. This came after he berated another reporter from the network, accusing her of lying and calling the media “unhinged.”The State Department correspondents’ association said it could only conclude that it was retaliation against the network, but the department did not respond to requests for comment.The stop in Kyiv is important to “highlight U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to Pompeo’s spokesperson. But American support for the administration has been in doubt since last summer, when Trump ordered $392 million of security assistance to Ukraine withheld, even as it battled Russian-led separatists in its eastern provinces.The Trump administration said aid would be released and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy would get a White House meeting only after announcing investigations into Trump’s political rival — former Vice President Joe Biden — and allegations of corruption while Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the board of the energy company Burisma. Zelenskiy was also asked to look into the debunked conspiracy theory known as “Crowdstrike” that posits Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for the 2016 election interference.The effort was at the heart of the impeachment proceedings against Trump, that began with a whistleblower complaint. U.S. diplomats who were part of the effort confirmed this during the House impeachment inquiry.Pompeo, the nation’s top diplomat, has consistently defended the president and said calling for both investigations were valid.En route to Europe on Wednesday, however, Pompeo declined to say whether he would mention the Bidens or Burisma during his meetings with Zelenskiy and his senior advisers.”I don’t want to talk about particular individuals. It’s not worth it,” he told reporters aboard his plane. “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.”Zelenskiy’s government has taken reform measures, including ending parliamentary immunity and reforming and strengthening anti-corruption agencies and laws.But the country’s top prosecutor said in October he was not aware of any wrongdoing by the Bidens, instead opening a review of previous investigations of Burisma, which has faced accusations of corruption and tax evasion.”It’s got to be a Ukrainian process. They’ve got to make the decisions on how they’re going to deal with corruption, how they’re going to deal with oligarchs and other challenges they have broadly,” a senior Trump administration official told reporters last Friday.When pressed on why former Trump officials, like former special envoy Kurt Volker and U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, were dictating to Zelenskiy’s top aide what investigations to announce, they had no comment.The security assistance — which includes funds for maritime security, secure communications and weapons like sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers — was eventually released, and the administration also approved a second sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Kyiv, a lethal weapon the Obama administration declined to sell for fear of escalating the conflict. But confidence in U.S. support has been shaken at a critical time for the large former Soviet state, with over 13,000 killed in the Russian-fueled conflict and Crimea still under Russian control.”In the contest between democracies and autocracies, the contest between freedom and unfreedom, Ukraine is the front line,” Bill Taylor, the former top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv, wrote in the New York Times on Sunday. “To support Ukraine … is to support democracy over autocracy. It is to support freedom over unfreedom. Most Americans do.”Pompeo was originally scheduled to travel to Kyiv in early January, less than 24 hours after Taylor departed his post. A career ambassador who came out of retirement at Pompeo’s request, Taylor became a key witness in the impeachment hearings, warning of the shadow effort and eventually drawing Trump’s ire.Taylor’s departure right before Pompeo’s visit was seen as an effort by the administration to not be seen with one of the president’s targets.The former diplomat’s tenure was always short-term because he was appointed and not confirmed by the Senate to fill the vacancy after another career ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, was recalled early from the post by Trump in May.Yovanovitch had been smeared by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his associates for over a year in a disinformation campaign that alleged she was a corrupt partisan working for Democrats — charges that the State Department denied last March.Yovanovitch was reportedly surveilled by one of Giuliani’s associates, and the Ukrainian government has opened an investigation into potential threats to her security during her time in the country.Pompeo said last week the department investigates “any time there are allegations that some officer at the State Department is at risk,” but declined to offer specifics. Before, during, and after Yovanovitch’s ouster — and Trump’s attacks on her and Taylor — Pompeo has refused to publicly express support for them, angering and upsetting rank and file at the department.He was pressed on that by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly on Friday, but he again refused to support Yovanovitch. After the interview ended, he berated Kelly using the f-word multiple times and challenged her to find Ukraine on an unmarked map, according to NPR.In an extraordinary statement Saturday, Pompeo did not deny the incident, but publicly accused Kelly of lying.Pompeo took his fight against the publicly funded network further Wednesday, accusing the network of lying about the Iran nuclear deal and being part of former President Obama’s senior adviser “Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber.”NPR received a grant from the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that advocates against the spread of nuclear weapons and supported the Iran nuclear deal. Rhodes cited it as part of an “echo chamber” the Obama administration created to boost the deal publicly.While NPR said it accepted the grant after the fact, both NPR and Ploughshares have said it did not influence the network’s reporting.Pompeo’s tirade against Kelly and retaliation against NPR has drawn swift condemnation from critics who say the top U.S. diplomat is supposed to defend press freedom, not punish members of the media.”It’s a journalist’s responsibility to ask government officials tough questions. And it’s a government official’s job to answer those questions,” Patricia Gallagher Newberry, national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said in a statement Tuesday. “Journalists shouldn’t be berated or punished for trying to gather and report information to the American people,”The attacks won Pompeo singular praise at the White House Tuesday.”You did a good job on her, actually,” Trump said to Pompeo, followed by applause and laughing, during an event unveiling his Mideast peace plan.Copyright © 2020, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.