Pompeo heads to Ukraine next week to meet with president

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U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a visit to an anti-narcotics police base in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Ivan Valencia)

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will visit Ukraine next week, making his first trip to the country at the heart of President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

As Trump’s Senate trial on impeachment charges continues, the State Department announced Friday that Pompeo would travel to Kyiv as part of a five-nation tour of Europe and Central Asia. Since November, Pompeo has twice canceled plans to visit Ukraine, most recently just after the New Year when developments with Iran forced him to postpone the trip. Pompeo will also visit Britain, as it finalizes its divorce from the European Union, along with Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Trump’s impeachment on charges of abuse of office and obstruction of Congress hinges on his policy toward Ukraine. Witnesses told House investigators that Trump wanted Ukraine to announce an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son in return for releasing critical military aid to Ukraine.

Pompeo has sought to stay above the impeachment fray and his stop in Ukraine will likely test his ability to continue to do so while leading diplomatic efforts to boost ties between Washington and Kyiv that have been complicated by the process.

One of the impeachment witnesses, William Taylor, was until Jan. 1 the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Pompeo had appointed Taylor to the post over the summer to take over from Marie Yovanovitch, whose tour was abruptly cut short last May after Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani made unsubstantiated allegations against her. Yovanovitch testified that Trump supporters had mounted a smear campaign against her.

Just before the trip was announced, Giuliani said he would be presenting evidence of corruption involving the Bidens and Ukraine. Such allegations, even if they are unfounded, may distract from Pompeo’s mission in Kyiv, which is to show U.S. support for the country in the face of Russian aggression.

Taylor departed Kyiv just a day before Pompeo was to have arrived on his previously planned trip. The position was temporary and time-limited by law but his tenure could have lasted until mid-January. His departure prompted complaints from lawmakers that his departure was similar to Yovanovitch’s early recall and sent a poor message to the embassy in Kyiv and career diplomats more generally, as well as to Ukrainian authorities.

Pompeo responded testily on Friday when asked about Ukraine and Yovanovitch in an interview with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly. Repeating a frequent talking point, he said the Trump administration had done more for Ukraine than President Barack Obama had done, including supplying the country with lethal defensive weaponry.

“This administration has delivered the capability for the Ukrainians to defend themselves,” he said. “President Obama showed up with MREs, we showed up with Javelin missiles. The previous administration did nothing to take down corruption in Ukraine. We’re working hard on that. We’re going to continue to do it.”

The Obama administration pushed Ukraine to do more to fight endemic corruption.

Asked about Yovanovitch, who is still employed by the State Department, Pompeo replied: “I’ll say only this: I have defended every State Department official. We have built a great team. I have defended every single person on this team. I have done what’s right for every single person on this team.”

After the interview, Pompeo shouted his displeasure at being questioned about Ukraine, repeatedly using expletives, according to Kelly. The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Kyiv, Pompeo will meet with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whoseJuly 25 phone callwith Trump triggered the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump’s impeachment. In that call, Trump disparaged Yovanovitch and asked Zelenskiy for “a favor,” suggesting he wanted Ukrainian authorities to investigate Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, for corruption. Trump has said the call was “perfect” and has denied doing anything wrong.

In his meetings, Pompeo will “reaffirm U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the country continues to battle Russia-backed separatists in the east, the State Department said. Pompeo also will honor Ukrainians who have died in the conflict, which intensified after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in 2014, in a move condemned and rejected by most of the international community. A senior official said Pompeo would underscore that the U.S. will never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The senior official, who previewed Pompeo’s ultimately postponed trip, said the secretary would discuss Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption efforts but would not comment on whether the secretary would raise Trump’s desire for an investigation into Hunter Biden and his role on the board of a Ukrainian energy company or discredited claims that Ukraine and not Russia was responsible for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

In addition, Pompeo plans to meet Ukrainian religious, civic and business leaders for talks on human rights, investment and economic and political reform, the department said.

Pompeo will begin his trip on Jan. 30 in London, where he will meet Prime Minister Boris Johnson and stress the administration’s desire to forge a free-trade trade deal with Britain as it exits the EU.

From Ukraine, Pompeo will travel on to Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan before returning home in time for Trump’s State of the Union address to Congress on Feb. 4. Human rights, energy independence and economic reform will top Pompeo’s agenda at each of those stops.

In Minsk, the secretary plans to affirm the U.S. commitment to improving ties with Belarus, which has had a strained relationship with Russia. President Alexander Lukashenko has pursued better relations with the West since Russia’s annexation of Crimea as Belarus is wary that Russia could try to absorb it.

In September, the U.S. and Belarus agreed to upgrade diplomatic ties by returning ambassadors to each other’s capitals after an 11-year break.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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