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Tensions Rise Within State Department Over House Depositions


The Trump administration is locked in a dispute with congressional Democrats leading an impeachment inquiry. Today, the State Department blocked a key figure from his scheduled deposition, the Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Democrats have accused the secretary of state of trying to obstruct justice. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the view from the State Department.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ignored a shouted question about the decision to keep Sondland from going to Capitol Hill today.


MIKE POMPEO: Good morning.

KELEMEN: Over the weekend, the secretary lectured a journalist in Greece for asking about Trump's controversial phone call with Ukraine's president, accusing the reporter of getting caught up in a, quote, "silly gotcha game."


POMPEO: The people who have this charge - right? - as a reporter, as a journalist - the people who have this charge aren't really focused on the things that matter to people. Look. I was - look. I was on the phone call. I was - I'm on almost every phone call with the president with every world leader. The president has every right to have these set of conversations.

KELEMEN: Pompeo went on to describe this as normal diplomatic business.


POMPEO: Nations do this. Nations work together, and they say, boy, goodness gracious. If you can help me with X, we'll help you achieve Y. This is what partnerships do.

KELEMEN: That argument does not sit well with Dan Fried, a retired foreign service officer who was assistant secretary of state for Europe in the Bush administration and now works for the Atlantic Council.

DAN FRIED: The problem is not making deals and bundling issues together. The problem is that the president crossed the line between his public duties and his private interests. That's the problem.

KELEMEN: And Fried, who has worked with both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state, says it's Pompeo's job to keep the country's national security interests, not the president's political concerns, at the forefront.

FRIED: The secretary has been acting in a way which is distressingly partisan, and that is not appropriate for secretaries of state.

KELEMEN: Speaking by phone from Warsaw, Fried says this has been a shock to the culture at the State Department, where foreign service officers pride themselves in being nonpartisan. Secretary Pompeo has argued that he's protecting his staff from partisan committees on Capitol Hill. One former diplomat called that hypocritical, since the secretary did not protect the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine when Marie Yovanovitch faced a smear campaign by right-wing media or when she was criticized by the president last week at one of his outdoor media scrums.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I heard very, very bad things about her for a long period of time - not good.

KELEMEN: Yovanovitch was withdrawn from her post in May. It's not clear if she will be allowed to appear for her deposition date on Friday.

Former diplomats describe the mood in the State Department as worse than ever. Dan Fried says professionals there are in an impossible situation, working with a president who seems prone to believe conspiracy theories, some of which Fried believes are coming from Russia.

FRIED: The professionals are horrified by this, especially the - you know, the ones I know best are the ones that have experience with Russia. And they know how this stuff works. They know about disinformation operations.

KELEMEN: And now they're dealing with a president who sends his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to Ukraine on a quest to dig up dirt about Trump's political rivals, and they're serving under a secretary of state who avoids showing any daylight with the president.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. 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.
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