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Pompeo Testifies Before Congress On Diversity, Linick's Firing, Russian Bounties

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Senate Democrats say the Trump administration has left the State Department demoralized. And they say it's a national security issue, not just an inside-the-Beltway debate. That was one of many topics Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had to address in a long-awaited budget hearing today. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: It's been over a year since Pompeo appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and there was a lot of ground to cover. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, pressed him on reports that the Russians paid the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

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JEANNE SHAHEEN: So do you think it would be helpful for President Trump to talk to Vladimir Putin and tell him that he needs to back off in terms of paying the Taliban to kill American troops?

MIKE POMPEO: I always leave to the president what he wants to say to other leaders. I don't think there's any doubt in the mind of every Russian leader, including Vladimir Putin, about the expectations of the United States of America not to kill Americans.

KELEMEN: Pompeo insisted that the Trump administration has been tough with Russia, as it is with Iran and China. But ranking Democrat Bob Menendez says Iran continues to create problems in the Middle East and is closer to a nuclear bomb than when Trump came to office.

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BOB MENENDEZ: Meanwhile, the administration's confrontational bluster against China has not stopped China's march in the South China Sea, in Hong Kong, in suppressing and repressing its own people.

KELEMEN: Turning to internal matters, Menendez asked Pompeo whether he ousted the State Department's inspector general because the secretary was under investigation.

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POMPEO: It's not remotely the reason.

KELEMEN: Secretary Pompeo says he had the inspector general, Steve Linick, fired over the handling of a leak investigation.

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POMPEO: He didn't comply with the instructions about how we felt that leak needed to be investigated so that we could have an independent investigator do it. And then he wasn't candid about that process either.

KELEMEN: The secretary refused to talk about another personnel matter, one that was at the center of Trump's impeachment. That is the ouster of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine says Marie Yovanovitch was slandered.

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TIM KAINE: That sends a message that...

POMPEO: Senator...

KAINE: ...Could not be clearer to other State Department officials. And it may be just a big joke. I mean...

POMPEO: No. Senator... (ph)

KAINE: ...Hey, look at you smiling and then laughing...

POMPEO: Yeah, I'm smiling...

KAINE: ...And calling it silly. I don't think it's silly to Maria Yovanovitch or the people who work for you.

POMPEO: I don't think it's silly to the United States Department of State to understand that every ambassador, every political appointee knows that when the president of the United States finds that they lack confidence in you, the president has the right to terminate them. It's that easy, includes me.

KELEMEN: Democrats on the committee issued a report this week accusing the Trump administration of treating diplomats with disdain and failing to fill key positions. They organized an online event where retired Ambassador Barbara Stephenson said she was glad to see lawmakers focus on this.

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BARBARA STEPHENSON: The Department of State and the Foreign Service, in particular, are not in good shape. We as Americans need these vital institutions performing at the top of their game as we face rapidly rising global competition, competition for global leadership.

KELEMEN: The report also raises concerns about the lack of diversity at the State Department. That's a longstanding problem that's getting worse, says another former diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford.

ELIZABETH SHACKELFORD: Every mid-level officer I know who has resigned has been a woman, a person of color or both. If we want a State Department and a foreign policy that best represents America and her interests, it must look like America and understand America, not just our strengths but our failures and our weaknesses, also.

KELEMEN: In today's hearing, Secretary Pompeo said he's making progress, though he acknowledged that there are still only three Black ambassadors currently running U.S. embassies abroad.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "FAREWELL SPACEMAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.