At Vatican, Pompeo urges alliance for religious freedom

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that he was on the phone call in which President Donald Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden.

In Italy on the first stop of a long-planned four-nation tour of southern Europe, Pompeo forged ahead with his mission to show support for current and soon-to-be NATO allies. But he was unable to escape the growing furor over Trump’s possible impeachment that has rocked Washington and now embroiled the secretary himself and the State Department.

“I was on the phone call,” Pompeo said in response to a question a joint news conference in Rome with his Italian counterpart. The disclosure highlighted his earlier deflection of similar questions about the call, which is at the center of the impeachment inquiry by House Democrats. Democrats have called on Pompeo to recuse himself from any involvement in Ukraine-related elements of the inquiry because they say his participation in the call represents a conflict of interest.

Pompeo would not say whether he thought Trump’s comments in the July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy were inappropriate or whether he believed they warranted the complaint of an intelligence community whistleblower that triggered the impeachment probe. Yet his acknowledgment of participating in the call raised new questions about whether Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani had State Department backing to press Ukraine to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter, for corruption.

“The phone call was in the context of … what the American policy is with respect to Ukraine,” he said. “It’s been remarkably consistent, and we will continue to try to drive those set of outcomes.”

Pompeo said he was proud to work with the State Department’s Ukraine team — including former special envoy Kurt Volker, who connected Giuliani to a top Zelenskiy aid — to help the country fight corruption and combat Russian aggression. Volker resigned last Friday and is expected to be interviewed by House committee staffers this week.

“It was about helping the Ukrainians get graft out and corruption outside of their government and to help now this new government in the Ukraine build a successful, thriving economy,” he said.

In a Sept. 22 interview with ABC News, Pompeo had evaded questions about the call. Asked then “what do you know” about a report of the conversation between Trump and the president of Ukraine, Pompeo said he hadn’t seen either the report or the whistleblower complaint and went on to talk about how the U.S. has provided military support to the government of Ukraine in its fight with Russia-backed separatists.

Pressed by the ABC interviewer to respond to Trump’s defense of the conversation with Zelenskiy, the secretary again sidestepped the issue by saying the Ukrainian government had issued a statement saying no pressure was applied during the conversation. Pompeo then went on to say it would be inappropriate to release a transcript.

Three days later, however, the White House released a rough transcript of the call confirming that Trump had in fact pressed the government of Ukraine to work with Giuliani to investigate Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy firm.

Pompeo is under increasing scrutiny from House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry against Trump. On Tuesday, he pushed back on House demands for interviews with State Department officials about the administration’s dealings with Ukraine that are at the center of the inquiry.

Pompeo defended his response to the House committee chairmen, who have suggested that Pompeo’s participation in the Trump-Zelenskiy call should require him to recuse himself from decisions on how to deal with Congress.

Pompeo asserted that House investigators contacted “State Department employees directly” and told them not to contact State Department lawyers for advice. He said the State Department would “do our constitutional duty to cooperate” with Congress but wouldn’t tolerate “bullying and intimidation.”

“We will of course do our constitutional duty to cooperate with this co-equal branch, but we are going to do so in a way that is consistent with the fundamental values of the American system,” Pompeo said. “And we won’t tolerate folks on Capitol Hill bullying and intimidating State Department employees. That’s unacceptable, and it’s not something that I’m going to permit to happen.”

Pompeo appeared relieved to have finished his answer and when the news conference ended, he went to lunch with his Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, to continue what had been intended as a traditional diplomatic visit to a NATO ally that began on Tuesday with meetings with Italy’s president and prime minister.

After lunch, Pompeo and Di Maio spent several minutes admiring a bright red Ferrari sports car that was brought to the foreign ministry to show off Italian automotive design excellence.

Italy is deeply concerned about Trump’s threatened tariffs on European products and the Ferrari appeared a day after a woman interrupted the start of Pompeo’s meeting with Premier Giuseppe Conte to present him with a gift of Parmesan cheese produced in her hometown. She delivered a plea for Pompeo to bring the cheese to Trump to show him that his threatened tariffs on European products would hurt Italian businesses.

Pompeo will visit his ancestral hometown in Abruzzo on Thursday before leaving Italy on Friday for Montenegro, North Macedonia and Greece.

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