Pompeo Cancels Ukraine Trip Amid Protests at Embassy in Iraq
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday canceled a weeklong trip to Ukraine and four other nations to stay in Washington and monitor tensions in Iraq after protesters broke into the United States Embassy compound in Baghdad and wrecked parts of it, the State Department said.
The department’s spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, said in a statement that Mr. Pompeo aimed to “ensure the safety and security of Americans in the Middle East” by staying in Washington and would travel in the “near future” to the countries he had been scheduled to visit.
The Iraqi protesters, who were mostly members of Iranian-backed militias, broke into the embassy compound on Tuesday and set some outbuildings on fire. The attackers trapped diplomats and other embassy employees inside larger buildings, but the ambassador, Matthew Tueller, was outside the country on leave. The protests on Wednesday were calmer, and no demonstrators breached the gates. Protesters dispersed in the afternoon, and there were no reports of injuries.
Former State Department officials and associates of Mr. Pompeo say he has been keen to ensure that American diplomats are not harmed under his watch, especially because as a congressman, he was among the most scathing critics of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of a militant group’s attack on an American compound in Benghazi, Libya. The 2012 assault resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
In May, during a period of heightened tensions with Iran, Mr. Pompeo ordered a withdrawal of most employees at the Baghdad Embassy and the Erbil Consulate, and last September he ordered the closing of the Basra Consulate.
The assault Tuesday in Baghdad by protesters, some of whom chanted “Death to America,” evoked both Benghazi and a siege in 1979 of the American Embassy by student demonstrators in Tehran, Iran, where 52 diplomats and support personnel were held hostage for 444 days.
Some of the protesters in Baghdad were members of an Iranian-backed militia targeted by the American military with airstrikes after commanders determined the militia was responsible for a rocket attack that killed an American security contractor. At least two dozen people died in five strikes in Iraq and Syria. (The militia has denied responsibility for the rocket attack.)
Mr. Pompeo had planned to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine on Friday. That would have been the first meeting between a member of President Trump’s cabinet and Mr. Zelensky since the impeachment inquiry of Mr. Trump began in late September.
The Democratic-led House impeached Mr. Trump on Dec. 18 along a largely party-line vote, accusing him of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress after hearings revealed how Mr. Trump withheld $391 million of military aid to Ukraine while pressuring Mr. Zelensky for political favors. A reconstructed transcript of a July 25 call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky was a key piece of evidence.
Mr. Pompeo’s planned trip had stirred speculation throughout Washington and Kyiv about what messages he would deliver to Mr. Zelensky on behalf of Mr. Trump. On several occasions since the Ukraine affair became public in September, Mr. Pompeo has emphasized Mr. Trump’s assertions that there should be investigations into unsubstantiated, conspiratorial claims of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election and actions on Ukraine policy by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is now a leading Democratic presidential candidate.
The State Department on Monday announced Mr. Pompeo’s trip, which also had stops planned in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Cyprus. The department had said Mr. Pompeo intended to “reaffirm U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” on his trip, a reference to the yearslong war that Ukraine is fighting against a Russian-backed insurgency in the east.
The Ukraine trip this week had been scheduled after Mr. Pompeo canceled plans for a visit there in November. That journey, and a possible meeting with Mr. Zelensky, would have taken place in the middle of the impeachment testimony in the House.
The two cancellations could add to suspicions among Ukrainian officials that Mr. Trump has little regard for Ukraine while holding warm feelings for Russia and President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Zelensky still wants a White House meeting, despite the furor over impeachment and Mr. Trump’s actions on Ukraine. And Ukrainian officials were frustrated by an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 10 between Mr. Trump and Sergey V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister.
Mr. Pompeo had made plans to avoid interacting this week with William B. Taylor Jr., the departing chief of mission in Kyiv. Mr. Taylor was a prominent witness in the House impeachment hearings. The ouster last spring of his predecessor, Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch, was a signal moment in a shadow American foreign policy in Ukraine run by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Last April, Mr. Pompeo ordered the recall of Ms. Yovanovitch after speaking with Mr. Giuliani. Ms. Yovanovitch was a champion of anti-corruption efforts, and Mr. Giuliani and associates with ties to Ukrainian businessmen had pressed for her ouster.
Mr. Pompeo then chose Mr. Taylor, a veteran diplomat and ambassador to Ukraine under previous administrations, to run the mission in Kyiv. But Mr. Taylor argued strongly against the withholding of military aid, and his congressional testimony on Mr. Trump’s shadow policy — what Mr. Taylor called the “irregular channel” — led the president to denounce him on Twitter.
Mr. Taylor was scheduled to leave his post this month, but a close aide to Mr. Pompeo, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, asked Mr. Taylor to turn over his duties to the deputy chief of mission on Wednesday, before Mr. Pompeo’s scheduled arrival, a person with knowledge of the discussion said. Mr. Pompeo could then avoid interacting with Mr. Taylor. After that conversation, Mr. Taylor decided to leave Ukraine on Thursday.
Mr. Trump has not nominated an ambassador for Ukraine since he and Mr. Pompeo forced Ms. Yovanovitch to leave. The president has left vacant many ambassador positions around the world, presumably as part of a wider goal of cutting the operations of the State Department. Critics say that has contributed to the rudderless, chaotic nature of foreign policy under Mr. Trump.