Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is refusing to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unless it holds hearings on five senior State Department nominees, including the administration’s new ambassador to Ukraine, in what Democrats called an extraordinary challenge to congressional norms and the body’s oversight role.
In a letter to Senator James Risch, the Idaho Republican who heads the committee, Pompeo said he would testify on July 20 if Risch proceeds “with all of the engagements as proposed in the attached calendar.”
The previously undisclosed letter, which was sent in late June, includes a spreadsheet with suggested dates and times of hearings for Trump administration nominees for the ambassadors to Ukraine and Peru, the State Department legal adviser, an undersecretary and an assistant secretary.
“I cannot overstate the importance of filling these critical leadership positions,” Pompeo wrote. “I am disappointed it has come to this, but all these nominees have been pending in Congress for weeks or months.”
The letter amounts to an unusual challenge to congressional oversight, particularly considering that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is controlled by Pompeo’s fellow Republicans. But he has tangled with congressional leaders for months, and especially with New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee.
The dispute has impeded the committee’s work even as both chambers of Congress adapt to the limitations imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.
After the pandemic made a Pompeo appearance untenable in the spring, Risch essentially gave up trying to schedule a hearing for him to testify about the State Department’s 2021 budget, an appearance that has previously been required of a secretary of state.
The last time Pompeo appeared before the Senate was in April 2019.
Pompeo largely refused to cooperate with the Ukraine impeachment inquiry before the House, where he was once sat as a representative from Kansas. And he has subsequently clashed with Menendez and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, over the secretary of state’s decision this summer to fire State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.
Pompeo demanded hearings for Keith Dayton, the nominee for ambassador to Ukraine; Lisa Kenna, the nominee for ambassador to Peru; legal adviser nominee C.J. Mahoney, Western Hemisphere Affairs assistant secretary nominee Carlos Trujillo, and Marshall Billingslea, the nominee for undersecretary for arms control and international security.
Pompeo came under sharp criticism after he refused to publicly defend Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed as ambassador to Ukraine after she became the target of a smear campaign.
A person familiar with the matter said the letter was a culmination of a lengthy back-and-forth between Risch and Pompeo over nominees and Pompeo’s refusal to provide documents about them that committee members including Menendez have requested.
While Republicans have been frustrated with many of Menendez’s demands, they also agree that the State Department has an obligation to meet some of them, added the person, who asked not to be identified discussing private discussions.
The person said that despite the dispute, the committee still expects Pompeo to testify. The committee is trying to work out a schedule that accommodates both nominations and substantive policy hearings, the person said.
The State Department declined to comment late Friday, as did a spokesperson for Menendez.
In one exchange in May, Pompeo castigated Menendez for repeated questions about why he had taken so many trips to his home state of Kansas, even asking the Office of the Special Counsel to investigate whether they were illegal. A ruling came back that they weren’t. The secretary had been encouraged to run for an open Senate seat in Kansas, but decided against it.
“The OSC response to your hackery makes clear your continued effort to politicize legitimate and important diplomatic and national security activity was without merit,” Pompeo wrote. “There is much important work to do, Bob. Let’s stay focused on it.”
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