By MATTHEW LEE AP Diplomatic Writer
ROME (AP) — It was supposed to be a day of routine diplomacy, but U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo couldn’t escape the furor back in Washington surrounding the House impeachment probe of President Donald Trump.
Just before Pompeo toured the Roman Forum, he held a news conference on Wednesday with his Italian counterpart and acknowledged that he was on the July telephone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president at the center of the impeachment inquiry in Congress.
He didn’t say whether he thought the contents of the July 25 call were inappropriate or whether he believed they warranted the complaint of an intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint triggered the impeachment probe.
“The phone call was in the context of … what the American policy is with respect to Ukraine,” he said. “It’s been remarkably consistent, and we will continue to try to drive those set of outcomes.”
Pompeo said he was proud to work with the State Department’s Ukraine team — including former special envoy Kurt Volker, who connected Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to an aide of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — to help the country fight corruption and combat Russian aggression.
“It’s what our team, including Ambassador Volker, were focused on,” Pompeo said. “It was taking down the threat that Russia poses there in Ukraine. It was about helping the Ukrainians get graft out and corruption outside of their government and to help now this new government in the Ukraine build a successful, thriving economy.”
“It’s been what State Department officials that I have had the privilege to lead have been engaged in, and it’s what we will continue to do even while all this noise is going on,” he said.
Volker resigned abruptly from the special envoy position last Friday after Giuliani suggested the department was well aware of his efforts to get Ukraine to open a corruption probe into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Pompeo is under increasing scrutiny from House Democrats leading impeachment proceedings against Trump. On Tuesday, he pushed back on House demands for interviews with State Department officials about the administration’s dealings with Ukraine that are at the center of the inquiry.
Pompeo defended his response to the House committee chairmen, who have suggested that Pompeo’s participation in the Trump-Zelenskiy call should require him to recuse himself from decisions on how to deal with Congress.
Pompeo asserted that House investigators contacted “State Department employees directly” and told them not to contact State Department lawyers for advice. He said the State Department would “do our constitutional duty to cooperate” with Congress but wouldn’t tolerate “bullying and intimidation.”
“We will of course do our constitutional duty to cooperate with this co-equal branch, but we are going to do so in a way that is consistent with the fundamental values of the American system,” Pompeo said. “And we won’t tolerate folks on Capitol Hill bullying and intimidating State Department employees. That’s unacceptable, and it’s not something that I’m going to permit to happen.”
Earlier Wednesday, Pompeo criticized governments that wield absolute power as threats to religious freedom, telling a conference at the Vatican on human dignity and faith that when governments hold all the power, religion is a threat.
“When the state rules absolutely, human dignity is trampled, not cherished,” he said. “When the state rules absolutely, moral norms are crushed completely. When the state rules absolutely, it demands its citizens worship government, not God.”
He cited China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar and Syria in particular for repressing religious freedom.