Pompeo confirms he was on call between Trump and Ukraine's Zelensky
Senate Democrat calls on Pompeo to recuse himself from all Ukraine-related matters
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed he was on a telephone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that is at the centre of an impeachment inquiry.
"I was on the phone call," Pompeo told reporters in Rome on Wednesday during a news conference with his Italian counterpart, Luigi Di Maio.
Pompeo did not give information about what was in the call, saying only he was well versed in U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
"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."
Watch: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirms he was on the Ukraine call
Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's foreign relations committee, said Pompeo has a conflict of interest, and called on him in an official letter to recuse himself from all Ukraine-related matters.
The American people need to have confidence that the nation's chief diplomat is making decisions based on the national interest — not to advance a partisan political agenda.- Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on Senate's foreign relations committee
"The American people need to have confidence that the nation's chief diplomat is making decisions based on the national interest — not to advance a partisan political agenda," said Menendez, who represents New Jersey.
Following a whistleblower complaint last week, Democrats are looking into Trump's request to Zelensky during the July 25 phone call to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden, a leading contender in the Democratic race to run against Republican Trump in the 2020 election.
The unidentified whistleblower is said to be an intelligence agent who accused Trump of soliciting foreign interference for his personal political benefit. Trump has denied wrongdoing and assailed the probe, and has also indicated interest in finding out the whisteblower's identity, which is protected by federal law.
"This country has to find out who that person was, because that person is a spy in my opinion," he said Wednesday from the White House.
Trump continued to characterize the conversation as "perfect" and accused the whistleblower of fabricating details of the call, even though a summary released by his own White House last week appeared to be politically damaging to the president.
Pompeo said he was proud to work with the State Department's Ukraine team, including former special envoy Kurt Volker, who connected Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to an aide of Zelensky, to help the country fight corruption and combat Russian aggression.
"It's what our team, including Ambassador Volker, were focused on," Pompeo said. "It was taking down the threat that Russia poses there in Ukraine. 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.
"It's been what State Department officials that I have had the privilege to lead have been engaged in, and it's what we will continue to do even while all this noise is going on."
Volker resigned abruptly from the special envoy position last Friday after Giuliani suggested the department was well aware of his efforts to get Ukraine to open a corruption probe into Biden's son.
Volker is scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to give a deposition to House committee staff on Thursday.
Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was abruptly recalled in May, has agreed to appear on Oct. 11 before Congress.
With their deep knowledge of Ukraine, testimony by Yovanovitch and Volker could be especially important to the impeachment probe.
Schiff concerned about Pompeo's actions
Pompeo is under increasing scrutiny from House Democrats leading impeachment. 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 centre of the inquiry.
He defended his response to House committee chairmen, who have suggested that Pompeo's participation in the Trump-Zelensky 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 co-operate" with Congress, but wouldn't tolerate "bullying and intimidation."
"We will of course do our constitutional duty to co-operate 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
Adam Schiff, the U.S. intelligence committee chair, warned Pompeo not to stop diplomatic officials from testifying before congressional committees.
Whistleblower spoke to Schiff aides before complaint
"We are deeply concerned about Secretary Pompeo's effort now to potentially interfere with witnesses whose testimony is needed before our committee, many of whom are mentioned in the whistleblower complaint," Schiff said at a news conference Wednesday.
The whistleblower spoke to staffers on the House intelligence committee before filing the formal complaint in August, a spokesperson for Schiff, Patrick Boland, said Wednesday. He said the whistleblower contacted the committee for guidance on how to report "possible wrongdoing."
Over the past few days, Democratic chairmen of the House foreign affairs, intelligence and oversight committees issued subpoenas to both Pompeo and Giuliani, and scheduled depositions with a series of other current and former officials, as well as associates of Giuliani, as they seek to unearth more evidence of potential wrongdoing by Trump.
Trump said on Wednesday that the White House "always co-operates" with congressional subpoenas when asked about efforts to obtain testimony on the Ukraine file. Speaking at a White House news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto, Trump also said that he would work with congressional Democrats going forward.
Australia to co-operate with U.S., up to a point
Meanwhile, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Wednesday that his country is unlikely to provide the United States with internal government communications with an Australian diplomat, who is partially responsible for triggering the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
According to a published report earlier this week, Trump recently asked Morrison and other foreign leaders to help U.S. Attorney General William Barr with an investigation into the origins of the Russia probe that was triggered in part by a tip from Australian diplomat Alexander Downer.
Morrison said he had agreed to co-operate with the inquiry during a phone conversation with Trump last month, but indicated Australia was unlikely to provide Downer's diplomatic communications about the matter to U.S. investigators.
"It would be a very unusual thing to do, and Australia would never do anything that would prejudice our national interest," Morrison told Sky News Australia.
The revelation this week that Trump had asked world leaders for help Barr's investigation underscores the extent to which the president remains consumed by special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and the ways in which he has used the apparatus of the United States government to investigate what he believes are its politically motivated origins.
With files from Reuters