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Pompeo lashes out at reporter, but doesn't dispute all of her claims

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends a briefing at the State Department on Dec. 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C.

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By ELI STOKOLS | Los Angeles Times | Published: January 25, 2020

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo did not apologize for or deny having a heated exchange with a reporter in which he lost his temper and asserted that Americans don't "care about Ukraine."

In a statement issued Saturday morning on official State Department letterhead, Pompeo continued to lash out at the reporter, NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, claiming that the heated exchange, which took place after an interview, was supposed to be private — even though, according to Kelly, Pompeo exclaimed that "people will hear about this."

"It is shameful that this reporter chose to violate the basic rules of journalism and decency," Pompeo said in the statement. "This is another example of how unhinged the media has become in its quest to hurt President Trump and this administration."

The broadside came a day after Kelly revealed details about the outburst from Pompeo following the interview.

Kelly told "All Things Considered" co-host Ari Shapiro on Friday: "He asked, 'Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?' He used the F-word in that sentence and many others."

She also detailed an awkward exchange in which she said Pompeo asked her if she could point out Ukraine on a map.

"I said yes, and he called out for aides to bring us a map of the world with no writing," she said. "I pointed to Ukraine. He put the map away."

Kelly's claim that she correctly identified Ukraine was Pompeo's only dispute.

His statement ended by stating, somewhat vaguely: "It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine."

Pompeo, who is scheduled to travel to Ukraine next week, apparently took issue with Kelly after she asked him if he had stood up for former Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch, whom Trump allies viewed as an impediment to his attempts to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled from her post in Kyiv last year, a key element of the Democrats' impeachment case that centers on Trump's pressure campaign and the temporary withholding of military aid to Ukraine.

Pompeo is set to depart on a five-nation tour of Europe and Central Asia next week as the Senate impeachment trial continues. Since November, he has twice canceled plans to visit Ukraine.

During the House's impeachment inquiry last year, witnesses told investigators that Trump wanted Ukraine to announce an investigation into  Biden's son in return for releasing critical military aid to Ukraine. Biden is among the front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Pompeo, who initially lied about not being aware of Trump's initial overtures to Zelensky before admitting that he was in fact part of a July 25 phone call between the two leaders, has sought to stay above the impeachment fray. But his involvement in the president's pressure campaign and his comments to Kelly about Americans being  indifferent to the plight of Ukraine, a country constantly fighting Russian aggression along its borders, is sure to affect his ability to lead U.S. diplomatic efforts with Ukraine.

One of the impeachment witnesses, William Taylor, was until Jan. 1 the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He was appointed by Pompeo to take over from Yovanovitch, who was removed 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.

Giuliani has said in recent days that he would be presenting evidence of corruption involving the Bidens and Ukraine, and White House lawyers have signaled they plan to focus on Biden during the defense phase of the impeachment trial to show that Trump's call for investigations in Ukraine was warranted, which, however beneficial to the president's defense, only further complicate Pompeo's diplomacy.

Pompeo responded with disdain on Friday when asked about Ukraine and Yovanovitch during the formal portion of the interview with Kelly. Repeating a frequent talking point, he said the Trump administration had done more for Ukraine than President 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 [meal rations], 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."

In Kyiv, Pompeo will meet with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose  July 25 phone call  with Trump triggered the whistleblower complaint that led to Trump's impeachment. In that call, Trump disparaged Yovanovitch and asked Zelensky for "a favor," suggesting he wanted Ukrainian authorities to investigate Biden's son, Hunter, for corruption. Trump has said the call was "perfect" and 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 Crimean 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 Zelensky'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.

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The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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