ROME (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened a four-nation tour of Europe on Tuesday as he pushed backed on an effort to compel diplomats to provide testimony in to Congress for an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.
Pompeo arrived in Rome to meet with Italian officials just hours after U.S. officials confirmed he was on the line during the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine’s president that launched the inquiry.
The secretary ignored a question about the call in a meeting with Italy’s president and was spared a possible repeat as he posed for photos with the prime minister and an Italian woman tried to present him with cheese to protest Trump administration trade tariffs.
In between, Pompeo also fired back at House Democrats leading the impeachment charge with a blistering rejection of demands to depose five current and former State Department officials involved in Ukraine starting this week. In a letter posted on his official Twitter account, Pompeo accused the House of trying to “intimidate, bully and treat improperly” the officials by seeking information about Trump’s attempts to get the Ukrainian government to open a corruption probe into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son.
Pompeo is the first Cabinet official known to have heard Trump press Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Hunter Biden’s ties to a Ukrainian natural gas firm. His participation on the call could indicate that effort to target Biden extended beyond the private lobbying conducted by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
Pompeo has said previously that he doesn’t believe any State Department official acted inappropriately in contacts with Ukraine’s government, and he did not speak to the matter during a brief exchange of pleasantries with reporters aboard his plane.
The response amounts to a confrontation between the executive and legislative branches over impeachment, and could both slow the probe and expose Trump to charges that he is obstructing Congress. In the letter, Pompeo said he would respond to a separate subpoena for him to produce documents related to Ukraine by three House committees by the end of the week.
Pompeo was sure to receive at least one question about Ukraine at his appearance with Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte but managed to avoid the prospect when a young Italian woman with press credentials threw the room into confusion by bursting through the rope line to present him with a gift of Parmesan cheese produced in her hometown.
Pompeo appeared perplexed, perhaps thinking the woman was part of an official welcoming ceremony, but Conte grew angered when she appeared to deliver a plea for Pompeo to bring the cheese to Trump to show him that his threatened tariffs on European product would hurt local Italian businesses.
“I have a present,” she said. “The prime minister knows what I’m talking about. This is something made best in Italy, made from the heart, so we hope you can help us in taking it to Mr. Trump, please.”
Conte ordered the woman removed from the room.
Pompeo is not scheduled to give any public remarks until Wednesday when he addresses a conference on faith-based organizations at the Vatican and later is scheduled to hold a news conference with Italy’s foreign minister.
From Italy, Pompeo will travel to Montenegro and North Macedonia before wrapping up his European trip in Greece.