In early September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in an interview a person should resign if asked to do something illegal or that violates his “core moral principles.”
Last week, his top aide apparently did.
Michael McKinley quit his 37-year job at the State Department because he was disturbed by the administration’s engagement with foreign powers for political gain, he told House impeachment investigators this week.
The latest developments add new perspective to the comments Pompeo made Sept. 6 following a speech in Manhattan, Kan. He said he had great respect for the rare example of an employee choosing to leave an agency by saying, “No, I can’t do that.”
“If you reach a point where you can’t do that, where they’re asking you to do something that’s illegal or something that you find just violates your core moral principles, you have a singular option, and that is to leave the organization,” Pompeo said. “You simply say, ‘I can’t do that.’ ”
The interview was two weeks before the public learned of President Donald Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine, the revelation of a whistleblower complaint and the launch of a House impeachment inquiry focusing on allegations involving foreign affairs.
Pompeo’s comments were in the context that the State Department employs people who have many different political views, but it is imperative that everyone’s primary role be serving the agenda put forth by the president.
Someone quitting over moral objections, “I don’t see that happening very often,” Pompeo said. “It’s like an extremist. But you can imagine someone coming to a place and saying, ‘No, I can’t do that.’ And if they do, I have great respect for that, but what you don’t get to do is stay inside that organization and undermine what the duly elected leader was seeking to do.”
McKinley, who advised Pompeo as a de facto chief of staff, gave closed-door testimony Wednesday to House lawmakers in the impeachment inquiry. The Washington Post reported he said he had to leave his job because of “what appears to be the utilization of our ambassadors overseas to advance domestic political objectives” and a failure to support diplomats caught up in the impeachment inquiry.
Pompeo has acknowledged he listened in as Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. During the call, Trump said Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was “going to go through some things.”
McKinley said he and other diplomats viewed the recall of Yovanovitch as punitive and unjustified. McKinley wanted Pompeo or the department to issue a statement in support of Yovanovitch.
Pompeo’s Sept. 6 remarks were in response to a question about the importance of loyalty to the president by State Department employees.
“You have to engage in the agenda that’s put forth by the duly elected leader, in this case President Trump,” Pompeo said. “So it is my expectation that everyone will work on that mission, whatever their own personal views may be. That’s completely fine. We want a wide range of ideas inside the State Department, and believe me, we have them. And that’s a good thing. I consider that all to the good.”
John Kostyack, executive director of the National Whistleblower Center, said he was concerned by Pompeo’s contention that employees faced with a moral dilemma should leave their jobs.
That point of view discourages employees from standing up to unethical behavior, Kostyack said.
“There have been a lot of messages sent out from top people in the administration that are hostile to whistleblowers,” Kostyack said. “We’ve been extremely concerned about the president’s statements that they should be treated like spies used to be treated, which implies of course a firing squad or electric chair. Those kinds of threats of violence, whether they are direct or implied, are contrary to longstanding traditions we’ve had in this country, as well as the law.”
Federal law requires employees to report illegal behavior, Kostyack said, and “people should not have to resign their job in order to address wrongdoing in their agency.”
Pompeo is a former congressman from Kansas who returned last month for an appearance in a lecture series at Kansas State University, where he talked about America’s legacy of preserving human rights around the world.
In Kansas political circles, Pompeo is viewed as a potential late addition to a crowded GOP scrum to replace the retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts in next year’s election. Pompeo hasn’t ruled out the run and would become the immediate favorite to win. Kansas hasn’t elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate since 1932.
Bob Beatty, a political science professor at Washburn University, said the impeachment inquiry could make the Senate race more attractive to Pompeo. The secretary, who has more than $1 million in his congressional campaign account, could wait until March or April to enter the race, Beatty said.
“I still think he’d be the prohibitive favorite in the primary, and I still think he’d be a big favorite in a general,” Beatty said. “Kansas is just such a strong Republican state for the Senate that I think there would have to be more to make him damaged goods in the Senate race. And ironically, that idea of ‘more’ could very well be the thing that pushes him into the Senate race.
“I don’t mean that he’s done anything that would come out. I just mean that it seems like in the Trump White House, he already has been put in one situation and he could be put in others that could be politically damaging.”