More State Department Employees Getting Lawyers Because Of Impeachment Inquiry

Oct 25, 2019
Originally published on October 25, 2019 5:09 pm
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More and more State Department employees have had to lawyer up because they're testifying in the House impeachment inquiry. Committees will hear this weekend from Phil Reeker. He's the acting assistant secretary of state for Europe. Many of these officials are participating under subpoena and over the objections of the State Department. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the pressure these employees face.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: These are uneasy times for State Department employees, says Ambassador Eric Rubin. He heads the American Foreign Service Association which has started a legal defense fund to help.

ERIC RUBIN: It's an unprecedented situation. We haven't had this many members facing the need for hiring lawyers in a very long time, if ever.

KELEMEN: Liability insurance doesn't necessarily cover this. In the depositions that have taken place so far, the State Department has instructed employees not to take part. House committees then issue a subpoena. So Rubin says there are risks either way for career public servants.

RUBIN: We haven't seen anything like this during my time in this business. And I don't want to speculate about what could happen. I can just say that being put in that position is extremely uncomfortable, dismaying. The last thing that any of us wants to do is get involved in politics or take sides in American domestic affairs.

KELEMEN: The former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was among the first to testify, explaining how she was withdrawn from the post after, quote, "a coordinated campaign against her." Her replacement, Bill Taylor, told the committee how he came to understand that Trump was delaying U.S. military aid to Ukraine to get the Ukrainians to commit to some political investigations. The White House dismissed the diplomats as, quote, "radical unelected bureaucrats." When a reporter from an NPR affiliate in Kansas asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo whether he agrees with that description, Pompeo simply said this.

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MIKE POMPEO: I've said repeatedly this is a talented, diverse workforce capably delivering on America's mission set.

KELEMEN: Pompeo then complained that the KMUW reporter was, quote, "fixated on the noise." Nancy McEldowney, who once ran the Foreign Service Institute, calls it scandalous that Pompeo hasn't pushed back against what she describes as the obscenities hurled at public servants.

NANCY MCELDOWNEY: I think Pompeo's lost the State Department. He may remain secretary of state in name. He may carry the title. But he has lost the allegiance of his people.

KELEMEN: More State Department officials are expected to testify as the impeachment inquiry widens. If they're based abroad, they'll need to get permission from the department to travel back, says McEldowney, who's now at Georgetown University.

MCELDOWNEY: Then there's the question of cost. Who will pay for the trip back? Who will cover housing, lodging costs while here? And so all of this piles up.

KELEMEN: McEldowney says U.S. diplomats have to wrestle with all of that as they answer congressional subpoenas.

MCELDOWNEY: The fact that so many public servants have agreed to testify says to me that they are going forward because they believe they need to speak the truth as they see it, to put the facts on the table and then to let the process go forward in whatever way is deemed appropriate consistent with the Constitution.

KELEMEN: In testimony so far, career public servants have described parallel foreign policies. There's the stated policy of helping Ukraine push back against Russian aggression, and as Ambassador Taylor called it, an irregular channel run by Trump's private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.