In Kiev, Pompeo promises US support, but no White House visit

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is the highest-ranking American official to visit Ukraine since President Donald Trump's impeachment process began. Pompeo underscored that Ukraine remains a "key ally" in the region.

Kevin Lamarque/AP
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during a joint news conference in Kiev, Ukraine, Jan. 31, 2020. He said he hopes the U.S. will take a more active role in solving the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed Friday that the Trump administration would not waver in its support for Ukraine and denied charges at the heart of the President Donald Trump's impeachment trial, contradicting the testimony of witnesses.

Secretary Pompeo met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday and rejected allegations that vital military aid and a White House visit were or continue to be conditioned on a probe into the family of former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival to Mr. Trump.

"It's just simply not the case. We will find the right time, we will find the appropriate opportunity" for the visit, Mr. Pompeo said at a press conference after meeting with Mr. Zelenskiy.

Mr. Pompeo is the highest-ranking American official to visit Ukraine since the impeachment process began last year. That process started with revelations about a July 25 phone call between Mr. Zelenskiy and Mr. Trump.

Mr. Pompeo's meetings in Kiev came as the GOP-majority Senate prepared to vote on whether to hear witnesses who could shed further light on Mr. Trump's actions toward Ukraine. The vote appeared likely to fail, however, as a key Republican said he would vote against allowing new testimony, boosting odds the Senate will vote to acquit in a matter of days.

Ukraine has been a delicate subject for Mr. Pompeo, who last weekend lashed out at a National Public Radio reporter for asking why he has not publicly defended the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. She was removed from her post after unsubstantiated allegations were made against her by Mr. Trump's personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani.

In the NPR interview, Mr. Pompeo took umbrage when asked if he owed Ms. Yovanovitch an apology, and maintained that he had defended all of his employees. In an angry encounter after the interview, he also questioned if Americans actually cared about Ukraine, according to NPR.

At a press conference after Friday's meeting, Mr. Pompeo assured Mr. Zelenskiy of Washington's unwavering support. "The United States sees that the Ukrainian struggle for freedom, democracy, and prosperity is a valiant one. Our commitment to support it will not waver," he said.

"The United States understands that Ukraine is an important country. It’s not just the geographic heart of Europe, it’s a bulwark between freedom and authoritarianism in eastern Europe. Its fields feed the European continent and its pipelines keep Europe warm in the winter," he said.

Mr. Zelenskiy, in turn, expressed hope that the U.S. would more actively participate in resolving a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 14,000 people in the past five years. Mr. Zelenskiy also said he still wanted to meet Mr. Trump in DC as long it would be productive. "I am ready to go tomorrow," he said.

Mr. Pompeo's trip is a "hallmark visit that shows the United States has and will remain our key ally in defending territorial integrity and sovereignty," Mr. Zelenskiy said. "For Ukraine, there is no doubt whatsoever in the state of the relationship."

Mr. Zelenskiy said the impeachment had not had a negative effect on U.S.-Ukraine relations. He thanked the Trump administration for its financial and military support that impeachment prosecutors say the president withheld in order to extract a personal favor from Ukraine.

Mr. Trump is accused of obstructing Congress and abuse of office for withholding a White House meeting with Mr. Zelenskiy and critical military aid to the country in exchange for an investigation into Mr. Biden and Mr. Biden's son, Hunter.

Ukraine has been an unwilling star in the impeachment proceedings, eager for good relations with Mr. Trump as it depends heavily on U.S. support to defend itself from Russian-backed separatists. Mr. Trump, who has still not granted Mr. Zelenskiy the White House meeting he craves, has offered that support to some degree. Although the military assistance was put on hold, it was eventually released after a whistleblower complaint brought the July 25 call to light. The Trump administration has also supplied Ukraine with lethal defense equipment, including Javelin anti-tank weapons.

Mr. Pompeo has stressed the importance of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, a sentiment long shared by Republicans and Democrats who see the former Soviet republic as a bulwark against Russian ambitions. But it’s a view that now has partisan overtones, with Democrats arguing that withholding aid from such a critical ally for political purposes is an impeachable offense.

Mr. Pompeo's comments at the news conference appeared aimed at making amends for the reported comment in which he allegedly described American disinterest in Ukraine. He later met with employees at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev who gave him a round of applause after he made some closed-door remarks and took questions.

Mr. Pompeo twice postponed earlier planned trips to Ukraine, most recently in early January when developments with Iran forced him to cancel. Mr. Pompeo said he plans to discuss the issue of corruption but demurred when asked if he would specifically raise the Bidens or the energy company Burisma, for which Hunter Biden worked.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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