Secretary of state Mike Pompeo suffered embarrassment from an unexpected quarter on Friday, as an interview with a local TV reporter in Nashville, Tennessee, produced not softball platitudes but hardball questions about the impeachment inquiry.
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“It sounds like you’re working, at least in part, for the Democratic National Committee,” the flustered diplomat said as he was pressed over Donald Trump’s attempts to have Ukraine investigate a political rival.
Pompeo was in Nashville to give a speech to a Christian group about religious freedom, a priority of the Trump administration. WSMV, an NBC affiliate, reported that he told his audience it was “a heck of a day not to be in Washington”.
WSMV reporter Nancy Amons was determined not to give him a break.
Saying she would “start right away with the tough stuff, as you know”, Amons asked about a key issue in the Ukraine scandal: the removal of the US ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, who was testifying to House members on Friday, and the resignation of Michael McKinley, a close aide to Pompeo.
“Well, ma’am, you have some of your facts wrong, so you should be careful about things you assert as facts before you state them,” Pompeo said.
“But more importantly, I’m incredibly proud of the work that I’ve done along with my team, other senior leaders at the state department, to make sure that this institution was functional, preserved and delivering on behalf of America.”
Pressed, Pompeo repeated that he did not talk about personnel matters as “it wouldn’t be appropriate, ma’am, to do that”. He appreciated the question “a great deal”, he said, but would not answer it.
With Pompeo’s irritation increasingly visible, Amons asked if he had met Rudy Giuliani on a visit to Warsaw this year.
The former New York mayor is commonly described as Donald Trump’s personal lawyer although it is not clear what legal work he might do for the president.
As the impeachment inquiry proceeds, Giuliani is under scrutiny regarding extra-governmental efforts to promote conspiracy theories about Ukraine and to persuade President Vlodimyr Zelinskiy to investigate unproven allegations of corruption against Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president Joe Biden.
Two Soviet-born associates of Giuliani were arrested this week on campaign finance charges. Giuliani himself is reportedly under investigation by federal prosecutors in Manhattan.
Pompeo chose three times not to answer Amons’ question, instead offering grim-faced variations on a theme: that he went to Warsaw to work on “an important mission … to take down the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, the Islamic Republic of Iran” and it was the “only thing I engaged in while I was there”.
“It sounds like you’re not going to say,” Amons said.
She then asked about text messages between US diplomats, obtained by House Democrats, which show concern that Trump was making the US-Ukraine relationship contingent on help with investigating the Bidens.
“Were you aware that this was happening?” she asked.
“You’ve got your facts wrong,” Pompeo said. “It sounds like you’re working, at least in part, for the Democratic National Committee when you phrase the predicate of a question in that way.
“It’s unfortunate and it does a real disservice to the employees and the team at the United States Department of State. Our team was incredibly focused, we wanted a good relationship with Ukraine.”
Amons also asked about the situation in Syria, where Trump’s decision to pull US troops away from the border with Turkey has given a green light to an incursion by Turkish forces opposed to Kurdish groups long allied to the US.
Related: ‘We knew this would happen’: Kurds in Nashville say Trump betrayed them
Civilian casualties and possible war crimes have been reported. The United Nations said on Sunday 130,000 people have been displaced. Nashville is home to a sizeable Kurdish American community, some of whom told the Guardian this week of their sense of betrayal by the US government. Amons asked the secretary of state what he would say to them.
“So the United States under President Trump did enormous work to support the Kurds in taking down the [Islamic State] in predominantly Kurdish regions of Syria,” Pompeo said.
Asked “for the Kurds who are here in Nashville, do you see why they are so worried”, he said: “We’ve been incredibly supportive and we will continue to support them.”
The interview drew praise from some titans of American journalism, among them Andrea Mitchell and Dan Rather, who Amons thanked on Twitter.
She also thanked her team and wrote: “Being prepared is crucial, and listening – things I learned through many years of workshops with Investigative Reporters and Editors, a great non-profit for journalists.”
Asked about Pompeo’s evident irritation with her questions, she wrote: “No, I never felt unsafe. I think he liked me less at the end though than at the beginning.”